Flashback to 1972
Alexis sweetly volleyed home his 23rd goal of the season and ran towards the home crowd with that increasingly habitual look of desire and uncertainty. He loved being the Gunners’ idol but wanted to go one step up to a club that would give him the holy grail. As he got closer to the crowd and approached the swarms of red and white, he made out the face of an olive-tanned silver-haired lady. Suddenly the memories came flooding black. The anonymous supporter staring at him looked identically to the photos that Lucia, his grandmother, had shown him. Laia Sanchez had “disappeared”, as they say, in Latin America, in 1973, a few weeks after Pinochet’s coup in Alexis’ native Chile.
Laia had been the workaholic programme setting up the ancestor of what we now call the internet, Cybersyn, a democratic way to stimulate the economy. And that’s precisely why she ended up dropped from a plane into the sea, taken from her home in Val Paraiso at sunrise, a few minutes before Alexis, a baby, would be woken up by a nightmare that his team Valparaiso FC lost the cup final to their fiercest rivals. Laia had been invited to Paris for a fellowship at the CNRS to develop the Cybersyn idea further. The French loved a “grand project” like this. But she had just got pregnant. And Pinochet hated pregnant Socialists. “If you kill the bitch, you kill off the offspring.”
What if Laia had swallowed her national pride and accepted the offer to exile to the French capital? So many of her compatriots had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. What if Enrique, her lover, had persuaded her to stay? What if Alexis himself had been able to voice his fears at the age of…one and of his dreams of appearing in that French cartoon Belle & Sebastian. What if Laia and Enrique hadn’t found themselves perched up on the roof of her grandmother’s house overlooking the bay and hadn’t made love…the act that led to Laia being born nine months later?
What if Laia had forgiven Enrique for never looking after Alexis and always going on tour to Europe with his art performance troupe, the “Collage of the Americas”? He’d wanted her and Alexis to join him in Paris so she could immerse herself in what could have become her new home. But she had refused point-blank.
Flashback to 1972
The sunset looked like a crème Brulee being cracked with a silver spoon as it broke through the skyline of Val Paraiso. As Enrique’s face slowly looked up and his eyes closed, Laia felt as if she had just waved a red flag in front of a humiliated bull in the suffocating heat of a corrida. She could almost hear the hooves of her lover’s anger stamping down on the ground, not being able to wait any longer before he let rip his anger at Laia’s teasing of his darkest weakness as he swirled a bottle of Atacamba pisco in front of him, with the loud clattering of the ice cubes against the glass. Enrique, a recovering piscoholic, felt like he was being watched by all the people he’d promised to stay sober. He knew that every time he went to take a sip from the tantalising hypnotic flavours of the fragrant liquor. It was as if his alcoholism was planting another spear in his fight for dignity. He opened his eyes, took the glass out of Laia’s hand and…gave her a boat ticket to Marseille. “I’ve switched to Petit Filous”, he joked. That was the last time Laia saw Enrique; instead, it was the last time Enrique and Alexis saw Laia with her floral dress, leather sandals and anarchist anklet.
She had decided to take exile, not from Pinochet, but from Enrique and gone to live with her grandmother in Piscoterra, a village in the Andean mountains. But she had to go to the bottom of her gran’s garden to an old shed to carry on working for Cybersyn, enjoying the world about to die and the world about to give birth. She’s conflicted by the widening disconnect between the young utopian socialists like Enrique, who believe their generation will save the world and the older conservative reactionaries who are scared at how the world around them is being turned upside down. Her only link with that generation is Lucia, her grandmother, who’s losing her mind, memory, and identity. That of a fiercely feminist housewife battled throughout her life the reactionary norms of the Andean mountain village she’s always lived in, of the husband who was as loyal to his wife as to the patriotic criteria that defined him. But Laia knew it wasn’t healthy to stick to the jumbled myths and memories of a lady who no longer knew herself. She was waiting for Enrique to message her Cybersyn, and she would come back into the technicoloured energy of Val Paraiso and back into the role of an activist but also a girlfriend and a mother.
On the outskirts of la Cite des Quatre Mille, the swarm of jet-white seagulls circled overhead like police helicopters over crowds. Unfazed, a red robin darts about with the unbound energy of a child unchained from his pushchair. The bay leaf tree welcomes a swarm of bees ready to pollinate every pore like a hen on a Greek beach resort strip. But Maria is frozen, like a skeleton in a physio clinic, lifeless, purposeless and colourless. The garden is a window onto the world full of energy, colour, and total… life. She may as well be dead. Everything has become a blur. Every thought is like stretching her legs to leap over the river but never quite managing to cross to the other side, always falling into the ditch, covering in the humiliating sludge that is her mind, like a psychological quicksand, where the more she treads, the further she falls.
“Why do you always go to the shed at the bottom of your garden Nonna?”
“My shed is like my life. It represents the spaces where you can find yourself, where you can find your tools, where you can find your window on the world. It’s where you can grow your plants…or ideas in a safe space but where the light from outside comes in. I never know who I am, and that’s what I want to be.”