Julio, el Portero

By Inger-Maria Mahlke

Translation Alexandra Roesch

First, Julio Baute switches on the television, then the fan, leans his cane against the shelves that take up the entire back wall of the porter’s lodge, places the chair in just the right spot so he can watch the Tour de France without turning his head or getting a stiff neck in the draught. He hangs his cap on the back of the chair and sits down, before checking the monitor to see if they’re waiting outside with folded arms, looking at their watches impatiently, to be let in again. The porter’s lodge is closed for lunch, the times are listed on a notice by the bell.

A flat stage, the breakout group has a lead of just under two and a half minutes, two Frenchmen, one Dutch, and the fourth isn’t a Spaniard either. The peloton is closing in, 47 kilometres to the finish line, they will catch them, it will be a sprint finish. Julio Baute turns down the sound. Tomorrow the mountain stages start at last, he prefers the Vuelta anyway.
Two women are waiting outside: a kitchen help, who’s now much too late for her afternoon shift, and one of the relatives. Julio Baute operates the buzzer. They’re expecting a new resident that evening. Julio Baute is certain it will be a male resident – a mistake, as he discovers the next morning. There are not really any places vacant for women in the Asilo. They live longer and put up less resistance.

Sor Mari Carmen had unlocked the visitor’s room that morning and one of the volunteers had removed the old strelitzia, which had withered in the warmth and darkness on the narrow coffee table. The water had been a dull orange colour, the stems that stuck to the glass looked slimy. The smell still hangs in the corridor and when the front door swings open, the draught wafts into the porter’s lodge. Julio Baute hears the women say ‘thank you’ as they enter behind him, he doesn’t turn around. The breakout group has a lead of two minutes seven seconds remaining, 39 kilometres to the finish line.

The white telephone switchboard is next to him on the table, square and almost forty centimetres long. The receiver on the left, with two buttons above it, of which he only uses one, rubbed brown by his finger: the answering machine. He pushes the button, no new messages. Below, five rows of elongated switches, a name tag under transparent plastic alongside each one, most of them not labelled, and in the case of those that are, not even half the connections are correct.

Julio, el Portero, is the switchboard. The central hub. The turnstile to the world. Without him you can’t enter or exit the Asilo, and all calls that are not to a direct line or don’t get through end up with him.

One minute forty, thirty-nine, one of the men from the breakout group – the Dutchman – tries to pull away, the others immediately draw level again.

Next to the telephone is the microphone for the announcements. Julio, el Portero, repeats each announcement twice. ‘Sor Cipriana, please make your way to the ladies’ dining room. Sor Cipriana, please make your way to the ladies’ dining room.’ Slowly and articulately. The visitors joke about it. ‘It’s like at the airport,’ he hears them say in passing. He is 95 years old, his ears work just fine. His knee doesn’t, but that’s another matter.

Julio Baute looks at the diminishing number in the right-hand corner of the screen, one minute twenty seconds, 32 kilometres to go, hears the serving trolleys in the hallway that are being pushed into the television areas. There is no one on the monitor, it’s quiet during summer.

He’s busiest from mid-December over Christmas and New Year until Epiphany in January. Musicians ring the bell every evening, unpack their instruments on the steps outside the entrance, stash their cases in the lodge, in order to benevolently reel off one, two, three songs for the residents. Families with children come in the afternoons, wanting to see the manger that’s been put up in the room next to physiotherapy. Shopkeepers bring donations from the local shops; they need to make space in their warehouses for high season. Julio Baute used to do the same: some of the curling tongs in the hair salon on the women’s wing that remains unused since the crisis, came from Marrero Electrodomésticos.

Bakeries send biscuits, the agricultural cooperatives send sack-loads of potatoes, onions, gofio, boxes of tomatoes, avocados, papayas. Bags of unsorted clothes from charitable organisations, local companies send samples of their products, hundreds of bottles of body lotion, two thousand packets of turrón, three boxes of pink furry unicorns. And everything has to pass through his doorway, gets stacked next to the ramp, on the steps, until someone from the kitchens or one of the nuns, together with several volunteers, carries everything inside. More relatives than usual at Epiphany, weighed down by guilt, childhood memoires in the bags and pouches. An abundance of new volunteers, New Year, new beginnings, seeking a meaningful role.

Julio Baute realises that Ana hasn’t been in for more than a week. A girl who looked a bit like Rosa had stood outside the door the day before yesterday, but he’s not sure. He only got a brief glance of her on the monitor, and it distorts things.

‘Coffee?’ one of the carers, Carmen, asks from the door. Julio, el Portero, nods. She half fills a pale pink plastic cup with pale brown liquid, places it on the table together with two paper packets of sugar.

‘Who’s winning?’ Carmen points towards the television. The cameras are showing the breakout group, their lead is down to 42 seconds.

‘None of those,’ Julio answers. She laughs.

When the bell rings, he briefly looks at the monitor and presses the door opener at the same time, one of the volunteers. Actually, he’s supposed to open the door for anyone and everyone, there are no other instructions. He’s only actually sitting there so that no one gets out. Everybody is roused by the coffee, they sit up in their chairs, chat with the person sitting next to them. The soundscape pushes its way down the halls, right into his lodge. As soon as they’ve finished their drinks, with the plastic cups reassembled on the serving trolleys as colourfully stacked towers, the first residents appear at the windows to the patio opposite the entrance. They keep as far from the porter’s lodge as possible and lie in wait. Wait for Julio, el Portero, to stop paying attention so that they can slip out. He knows who’s allowed to go for a walk and who isn’t, that’s also one of his tasks: keeping track.

The woman on the monitor pushes the door open, she laughs. Two of the ladies, Demetria with her walking stick and Trini with the parrot, are already leaning against the patio window. ‘Hola, chicas,’ Julio Baute hears the volunteer say, and how pretty they both look today. The ladies giggle, but Julio is sure that they only have eyes for the decreasing gap of the closing door. Augusto is late, he’s the most persistent lurker of all. Dementia, ever since his stroke, all he can do is mumble.

The peloton still hasn’t reached the breakout group, has slowed again. Julio Baute goes to turn the volume up, hits the wrong button, the picture disappears. It says Menu on the screen. He presses Exit. Menu is simple. But there are buttons on the new remote that send him on never-ending journeys through indexes, and when he finally manages to return to the television picture, the programme he wanted to watch is usually over.

Julio Baute had brought along the old television from home, Blaupunkt, tubes. Had repaired it six times, until white horizontal bars flickered on the bottom half of the screen, wandering up and down. He hadn’t been able to get the spare parts it needed.

The new one is flat, narrower than the palm of his hand. The lodge is suddenly twice as large, Sister Juana joked the morning of Epiphany, when the new television appeared on a small table beneath the window. Donated by a well-known electronics company which Julio Baute had never heard of. The nuns formed an excited half-circle around him, watching every move in his face. Of course, he’d shown how delighted he was, as well as he could – not exuberantly enough, he’d been aware of that the whole time – but when he’d clasped each of their hands in turn and, moved by their joy, had tears in his eyes, everyone was happy.

Julio Baute tried to open it, the new one, despite the sticker on the edge of the casing stating that the guarantee would become void if it was damaged. The screws are very small, 5 to 60 millimetres, cross-headed, they’re jammed tight. The screwdriver had slipped from his hand several times, making tiny shavings from the anthracite-coloured plastic, had left marks. At some point Julio had given up. Ever since, a question had been waiting for him behind the screen: whether he was still capable, if he would know which component fulfilled which purpose, would recognise and understand them. Whether cable and coil still came together of their own accord as a circuit diagram in his head.

He’d sold the shop before the machines started to get strange, before the computers ate their way into them. For a while Mother Superior had talked about replacing the telephone system. To his relief, there has been no mention of this since the crisis. Before he’d gone to sleep at night, he’d tried to imagine how it would be to sit in the television area with the other men, to go and have the occasional smoke, meals three times a day, coffee in the afternoons, dance with one of the carers when the bands played. Maybe place a hand on her bottom in a moment of inattentiveness.

Augusto mumbles, lifts his walking stick, he’s coming from the direction of the physiotherapy room, his spot is right in front of the door, the handle, which he is not able to open – only Julio, el Portero can do it – in his hand. He always tugs at it for a while in the mornings and during the lunch break, eventually he calms down, and anyone who wants to come in from the street has to push the door open slowly, wait until Augusto has retreated, one small step after the other.

It really is going to be a sprint finish; they have caught up with the breakout group. Individual cyclists still try to break out, but only manage a few metres before being swallowed up by the peloton.

Densely packed, the sprint teams’ lead-out helpers form a narrow bottle neck at the front, which accelerates, weaves along, when several attackers shoot off at the same time, distorted faces beneath colourful helmets that plug every hole. That’s how it will continue, until they turn into the narrow lanes of some small French town, then things will briefly get hectic when the lead-out helpers position their sprinters at the front, and then instantly and before you know it, it’s all over.

Sprint finishes remind him of the premature ejaculations of his youth. But tomorrow it’s the Pyrenees, then the Alps. Julio, el Portero, looks at the clock, it’s getting late for the new resident to arrive, Rosario is starting in half an hour, the times are on the notice by the bell. Julio won’t remain seated and wait, he knows the drill. Sometimes they make a fuss, refuse to leave their apartments: then you’ll have to carry me, I’m not leaving voluntarily!

What shall I do? the crying relatives later say on the phone, I can’t force him, what shall I do.
There are those who begin to wane almost as soon as they have moved in and unpacked their cases and the nuns have written their names in permanent marker on labels and washing instructions inside pillow cases or under shirt collars. They grow narrower with each meal, soft curves smooth out, new ones appear, not gently curved, but with sharp edges. Their shoulders want to join their knees, which they can no longer straighten out and which take on a more acute angle. Weekly at first, then daily, until it’s time for the wheelchair. It plateaus for a while, but the sedentary hours sap away their strength, the muscle fibres grow shorter and shorter, ever closer to 90° and less, and then they soon head off upstairs, to the first floor. To the bedridden, the mutterings of the dying, catheters and urine bottles, screens covered in light-coloured fabric behind which red lamps light up on bedside tables, when the legs extend once more.

There are those who adapt. The ladies sport moustaches, the gentlemen white stubble on cheek and chin, between which wrinkly folds of skin spread. Julio has been living in the Asilo for eighteen years, and he is doing splendidly. Since his knee became permanently stiff eighteen years ago, meniscal tear, since he caught the tip of his shoe on the steps outside the supermarket. He went to the supermarket every morning, lifted the tip of his shoe across the threshold every morning, half a centimetre, no more. His reflexes were okay, his hands darted forward, breaking his fall. Only the hollow between right knee cap and shin hit the metal rail embedded in the ground. It hurt so much that he had someone call him a cab to drive him the two blocks home.

The driver had to help him into the elevator, Julio sat on the floor when he got to the top. Pushed himself forward with his arms and the healthy leg, as far as his apartment, to the doormat, keeping a keen eye on the spyholes of the other residents on his floor. None of them obscured, he was relieved.

Why didn’t you ask for help? Ana later rebuked him. The next morning his knee was swollen, he had cooled it with ice packs overnight, had not dozed off until the early hours. After making himself some coffee, he’d called the ambulance, waited on the sofa, knowing that this was the last coffee he would drink at home.

Ana had wanted him to move in with her. Eulalia can take care of you, she’d said. If it gets too much for her, we’ll get more help. It was his, Julio Baute’s, own decision to move into the Asilo. He hates the church, but he likes the nuns.

No change, the doctor says at each three-monthly check-up, your levels are unchanged.
Before he goes to sleep, Julio still goes through his list: sometimes he forces himself, usually he doesn’t get further than fifth place, by then everything has gone limp again, without anything having happened. Fifth is Luisa, his employee Gil’s wife.

 

Excerpted from Inger-Maria Mahlke, Archipel. Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek/Hamburg/Berlin, 2018.