The opening chapters of Tim MacGabhann’s new novel, How to Be Nowhere, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 23 July 2020.
On the morning that the phone calls started, I dreamed that Carlos and I were back in Poza Rica, back in that place where nobody had asked us to go, back where nobody had asked us to look. This was where my mind lived at night – in a bar with riveted portholes for windows, a slow ocean of fog breaking against the windows, the river slopping black against the glass leaving a thick drag of foam. An oil derrick clanked behind the bar, pumping stout into a pyramid of glasses, while the dead kid we’d found, Julián Gallardo, lay on the bar at the centre of an altar we had made around him.
It’s like I told you before: nobody had asked Carlos and me to look at that body. But we had, and then everything had fallen apart. Julián had been an activist, murdered by corrupt local police. We’d never known him when he’d been alive, never even met him, but nobody had changed my life more. Carlos and I had found him lying dead and faceless at the bottom of an alley, and only I had lived to tell the tale.
There’s no need to tell you how big a news story that had been. That story was the reason I’d had to leave Mexico.
Two shots, the forensics technician had told me, outside the apartment where Carlos had died, the first between third and fourth rib on the right side, fatally puncturing a lung.
In the dream Carlos stepped up beside me. Smoke crinkled out of the bullet-holes in his chest.
‘Jesus’ – his fingernail clinked against my glass – ‘of all the ways to crack, you pick Carlsberg? No mames, vato.
Three years since my last drink or line, six months since I’d gone around dosing my grief with swigs of diluted LSD from a dinged metal water flask, and yet here I was, a pint in my hand, saying, ‘Hey, come on, man, it’s a premium lager.’
‘Doesn’t taste like it, vato.’ He lifted the pint and took a deep gulp. Something hissed wetly inside him as he swallowed.
The second shot between fifth and sixth rib on the left side, destroying the heart completely.
Carlos tucked his shirt back in and leaned forwards to reach for one of the glasses in the pyramid. A poppy collar of bruises ringed his neck. In the creamy whorls of reds and browns I saw oil, blood, smoke.
A reverse chokehold fractured the hyoid bone.
‘Try this instead, vato,’ he said, and held the glass out to me. His vibe was different from before, stand-offish, cold, like those white marble statues of Ancient Greece, of Orpheus or Eurydice or someone, I don’t know. ‘It’ll kill you. But gently, you know?’
The fizz spritzed my face like drizzle.
‘It could all be over if you just let yourself drown, vato,’ Carlos said. His voice was gentle, his fingers were broken, and his eyes were pinkish with petechial haemorrhaging.
But now my mouth was dripping with the thirst, and my throat became a long ache. A sob rose and fell in my chest. My hand was lifting the glass all by itself.
Then gravel crunched. A siren cut through my skull. Police-car lights washed over Carlos and me and Julián Gallardo, red and blue and halogen white, and Carlos’ killer – half his head missing, his police-uniform stained – stepped out of the light.
My eyes opened. Maya’s knuckles were rapping the car window.
‘You said you’d be at Arrivals!’ she said and swung open the door.
‘And where did I park?’ I swallowed the cobwebs in my mouth, pointed at the red sign glowing above the airport door. It was a foggy night. There weren’t many cars.
‘As in, standing at Arrivals.’ She slung her bag into the backseat and sat in the front.
‘Ah, no, that was a bridge too far.’ I yawned and started the car. Coffee-cups and donut boxes rattled around my feet. But, as I was about to turn around, I saw a white face standing beside a jeep, a white face wearing wraparound sunglasses and a square beard.
‘You going to drive or what?’ Maya said.
‘Huh?’ I blinked. The face vanished. It could have been anything – frames from a dream, a flash of bad memory, whatever, I saw stuff that wasn’t there all the time these days. ‘Oh. Yeah.’
‘You spaced out there,’ Maya said.
‘Occupational hazard.’ I drove us away from the airport, turned us onto the highway from Montevideo back to Colonia.
‘What occupation?’ Maya said. ‘You haven’t been doing shit since you moved here.’
‘I don’t know, managing trauma, or whatever. Speaking of which: you ready to talk yet?’
‘Not really, no.’ She reached into the backseat, rummaged for a second, then pulled out a giant orange candle shaped like an elephant.
‘We’re good for candles,’ I said, and then I saw the needle as thick as my finger that was stuck in the elephant’s flank, and the note – ‘GET OUT OF HERE, WHORE’ – that the needle was holding in place.
‘Oh, right,’ I said.
‘This was in my hotel room,’ she said. ‘In Poza Rica.’
You remember all this – Maya had been due to stay with us while she did the write-up of the investigation into what Carlos and I had uncovered in Veracruz, all about how the state government and oil companies had been using gang members and bad cops as death squads to drive indigenous people off their land, to silence activists, and to threaten journalists into silence. The governor and his people would launder their money by paying companies that didn’t exist for public services that wouldn’t happen.
After all that stuff had come to light, it had seemed a lot safer to dig around, and so that’s what Maya had been doing. Yeah, well, there’s safe, and there’s Mexican safe.
Meaning Maya’s editor had called you and me the night before, saying he’d paid to change her flight, and would be sending her down on the first plane that could get her to us.
‘Any idea why?’ I said. The road’s broken white dividing line flicked towards me through the dark. My heartbeat was starting to quicken.
‘Those shell companies.’ Maya eased her seat back with a click. ‘I went to their addresses – you know, all these fake places. Taxi-ranks. Old peoples’ homes. Oxxos. Last one I went to was in an open-air car park. Guy was sitting there, this old guy, a few curls of hair left. And so I ask him, “Are you the CEO of this company?”, and I hold up the piece of paper I print out from the Freedom of Information request, and he spits and says, “I look like one for you”, which sounds like a fucking “Yes” to me, quite frankly, but whatever, I go back to the hotel, and the manager’s at reception, and he waves me over, and he lifts this candle out from behind my desk, and this enormous valet comes up behind me with my bags. Y ya.’ She did jazz-hands at me. ‘So here I am.’
‘Thought you didn’t want to talk.’
‘Nature finds a way,’ she said, easing back against the seat.
‘That’s terrifying, though. Jesus.’
‘Occupational hazard. How’re you, anyway?’
‘Oh, you know. Happy. Quietly so. But happy.’
Maya looked at me sidelong. I could never get anything past her.
‘Is that code for “bored”?’ she said.
‘No comment.’ I flipped the indicator. ‘It’s just new, you know?’
‘I’m still hearing “bored”.’
‘“Bored” is good,’ I said. ‘“Bored” means safe. I wish I was bored. But I’m still too scared.’ The roadside lamps striped the inside of the car with white light.
‘Yeah,’ said Maya, staring out at the dark. ‘I hear you.’
‘Could do with all of that stuff being ten years ago already. Like a dog snapping at my heels.’
Maya didn’t say anything.
I pointed at the elephant. The needle was stuck fast in a divot of wax. ‘They let you fly with that thing?’
‘Told them it was an art project.’
The night was clear, quiet – no light pollution blotting at the glitter of the stars, no chug and thud of cumbia from the clubs, no kids trying to sell us knock-off Marlboro Red at the lights. It was basically the opposite of Mexico City around here. Sometimes I hated that.
‘You hungry or anything?’ I asked, as we slowed towards the Old Town. The orb lamps on the main square made me feel like I was back in Mexico City’s half-wrecked Centro Histórico backstreets. The nick of woodsmoke on the air briefly became the tang of beer-suds, the just-fucked musk and rained-on leather of the clubs became mine and Carlos’ sweat-run aftershave, but I shoved the memory away.
‘Not really, no,’ said Maya. ‘Wouldn’t say no to a cheeky cigarette though, yeah?’
‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’
She nodded off not long after that. Shock’ll do that to you. The sallow bones of a right whale glowed in a display sunk into the wall of the fortress, and I turned past it and slowed towards home. Maya woke at the snapping-bone noise of the brake.
‘Wow,’ she said when she saw the house. ‘Nice place.’
‘Ah yeah,’ I said, and got out to carry her bags. Inside I got her settled in the spare room downstairs.
‘Right so,’ I said, and gave her a hug. ‘Sleep well.’
‘If I can,’ she said.
‘I believe in you,’ I said. ‘You need anything, just scream.’
‘Blood-curdling or standard?’
‘Oh, standard will do.’ I shut the door and climbed up the stairs.
‘Those are getting really bad,’ you said, at the sound of me coming into the room.
‘What are?’ I sat down on the edge of the bed and took off my shoes.
‘Those nightmares of yours,’ you said.
My hand stopped in mid-air. ‘You mean I had another one?’ I said. ‘Huh. Can’t even remember it.’
‘You should see someone,’ you said.
‘What, like an affair?’ I lay down. ‘There’ll be no polyamory in this house.’
‘Like a therapist.’ You swatted me with the back of your hand. ‘You’re still seeing him, aren’t you?’ You’d been good about the Carlos dreams at the start. But it’s hard to stay patient with someone who’s just not getting better, I suppose.
You checked the time on your phone, then flopped back down again. ‘Oh, for God’s sake.’ You folded the pillow around your head with one arm. Your Peñarol jersey had ridden up, so I smoothed it down to cover your back, but you jerked away. ‘Your fingers are freezing!’
‘Alright, alright.’ I swung my legs from the bed to pull on my track-pants.
Your alarm went off. You flailed, batted the mattress with your fist.
‘Let me get that.’ I reached under your pillow, found the phone, pressed Snooze, then zipped up my hoodie.
‘How is she?’ you said.
‘Yeah, OK. And excited to meet you. I’ve been bragging.’
Bluish 5 a.m. light threw the shadows of firs against the blinds of your bedroom. The dodgy floorboard creaked as I laid my foot down.
‘How did you wind up upside-down?’ I rubbed your chest.
‘Your bad dream. You yelped.’ You wiggled a little, scratching yourself. ‘Thought it was the alarm. So I sat up. But then I fell back asleep.’ You yawned and stretched, kicking, then squeaked like those otters whose Instagram you followed. ‘And then I fell over. Now quiet.’ You pulled my pillow over your head. ‘Too early for speech.’
A plump cinnamon blur zipped past the glass, cheeping insistently, as I climbed down the ladder from the loft room.
‘Alright, alright,’ I said. ‘I’m coming.’
After shoving nuts into the plastic feeder by the door, I went downstairs to light the stove. Maya was sitting at the kitchen table, her laptop open.
‘What, no sleep?’
‘Too wired.’ Her chin rested on both her hands. ‘There’s coffee.’
‘Nice one.’ I heated water for your yerba maté and turned my phone on.
A missed call popped up from a Mexico City number and the breath went steam-hot in my nose.
‘What?’ Maya said.
She looked at me.
Like I said – there was nothing I could ever get past her. My knuckles rapped the table.
‘Anyone after you?’ I said. ‘Like, specifically.’
‘That I know of?’ She shook her head.
‘Nobody who’d, like, follow you here. For example.’
‘Don’t think so.’
‘Alright.’ I held up the phone. ‘Like, I could be just being paranoid. But I got a wrong-number call, and, well. I don’t know.’ I blocked the number. ‘Maybe it’s nothing.’
Maya looked at me over the rim of her mug.
I started doing my stretches – hand against the wall, leg raised, everything like that.
‘It’d be worse if you weren’t here.’
Maya bobbed her head from side to side.
‘I mean, for me, maybe.’
The kettle boiled, and I stopped stretching to fill your Thermos and to tamp yerba into your favourite maté gourd. The rumble of the boiler and the slap of sud-thickened water were filtering down from upstairs.
‘Don’t think about it.’ I lifted the Thermos and gourd. ‘Just going to feed the kraken now.’ I went upstairs.
‘Maya OK?’ you said, from inside the shower, when you heard me come through the door.
I opened the door and held the straw through the gap so you could sip while you shampooed yourself.
‘Maybe you should ask her how she’s dealing with all the stuff she’s got going on.’
You turned away from me, into the spray.
‘I don’t know. The stories she does. They’re a bit like yours.’
The anger surged through me, then the shame. All you knew of the story was what everybody knew — that Carlos’ killer was dead, and so was the owner of the company responsible for all the horror we’d uncovered, a man called Roberto Zúñiga. What you didn’t know was that I’d been there on the night that Zúñiga had been shot, and that I’d been sent there by his killers as a diversion tactic.
The wrong number I’d seen on the screen of my phone flashed in my head, my chest went tight again, and I sat down on the toilet, huffing as much as I could of your menthol shampoo, your Carolina Herrera 212 body-wash, your pH-neutral face-soap, into my lungs.
‘Is she seeing anyone?’ you asked after a minute or so.
‘Like dating?’ I said, even though I knew where this was going.
‘Right. I’ll ask.’ I left the gourd beside the sink and opened the door and leant in to give you a kiss on the back of your neck. There was no point saying anything else, and that’s not because we were speaking Spanish: it’d be hard in any language, because there are things you can see, and there are things that happen to you, and there are things you can talk about, and they’re really never the same set of things. ‘Back in a bit.’
‘OK,’ you said. ‘Love you too.’