Fiction • Quim Monzó
Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
Senyor Rdz’s eyelids don’t flicker. The nurse touches his arm.
“Come on, Senyor Rdz.”
Fearing the worst, the nurse holds the patient’s wrist to take his pulse. He has none. He is dead.
She returns the capsule to the pot, slides the trolley against the wall and leaves the room. Then she runs to the control desk in that wing of the hospital (D) and tells the head nurse that the patient in room 93 has died.
The head nurse looks at her watch. It’s really too bad a patient has died at that moment in time. She’s off in a quarter of an hour and is especially keen to leave punctually today because she has finally managed to persuade her best friend’s fiancé to meet up with her on the pretext she wants to have a word about her friend. Even though she knows (given what this friend has confided) that he’s a man who won’t stand any nonsense and isn’t at all interested in chitchat. She also knows that it’s a surefire thing he’s invited her to his place to impale her on the top of his table between the candles and plates of spaghetti, if he has indeed cooked spaghetti for dinner, as (her friend told her) he almost always does. She is eagerly anticipating the moment. Yet, if she certifies that the patient in room 93 has died, like it or not, she will have to stay on for a while, even though the next shift, which starts in a quarter of an hour, has arrived. The dead generate masses of red tape. They aren’t things that can be sorted in a flash. Which means she’ll get to her date late. Of course she could call her friend’s fiancé, tell him what’s happened and suggest they meet up later or even on another day. But she knows from experience that it’s usually fatal to postpone first dates. When you postpone a first date for one reason, the next will be postponed for another. And for another and another, until the postponement becomes rather definitive. Besides, it’s been a dreadful day, and she desperately wants to leave work, go to his house and get a piece of action.
If she knew the nurse who’d found the dead patient better, she could tell her to act as if she hadn’t noticed. That way, one of the nurses on the later shift would find him and the corresponding head nurse could deal with the ensuing paperwork. It wouldn’t matter one iota to the people on the next shift. They will have just started work, and the discovery of a dead man won’t ruin their day. She would be freed up and could get to her date on time. But she doesn’t enjoy that level of trust with the nurse. She’s new and there’s even the danger she may be afflicted by that obsession with ethics new people sometimes have. If that’s not the case, she might remember what she’s done and one day turn it to her own advantage when it suits her.
The head nurse glances back at her watch. She’s getting more and more stressed. The hands are moving inexorably toward the moment when she should leave, on her way to a date she does not want to miss. What should she do? She must decide quickly, because the nurse who found the dead man is starting to look at her as if she can’t understand why she remains so quiet, nonplussed and unresponsive. She says she will see to it, and that she should continue on her round.
Nor is she in a position to ask the head nurse on the next shift for a favor. Not because she feels any ethical qualms of conscience but, regrettably, because of a situation that is still unresolved, mutual hatred exists that’s been there from the day they first met.
If she can’t find a way around this, might she be stuck there and have to give up on her date? No way. But anxiety means she can’t think straight. Things look blacker by the second.
At the very worst moment, when her brain is giving up on ever finding a way out, the solution walks in through the door: the new doctor, who’s not been working in the hospital very long and always has a smile for her, a smile that’s at once insinuating and inquisitive. He is her lifeline. She’ll go over to the young doctor, tell him she has a prior engagement she can’t cancel and ask him to do her a favor and take responsibility for the dead patient. Even though she recognizes that, in exchange, his insinuating smiles will soon become a statement of serious intent. On the other hand, does she really fancy yielding to a show of serious intent from that doctor? She had never previously given them a moment’s thought. Her first reaction would have been no. However, after considering the lay of the land and taking a second look, she thinks, why not? Besides, if she decides she really doesn’t fancy him, she can always say no. One gives favors freely. A favor with a price attached ceases to be a favor.
However, the more she thinks about it, the less she feels like saying no. In fact, she fancies saying yes. What’s more: she really wants him to come up with a piece of serious intent. She wants it so badly she starts thinking less and less about the man she has that date with later and whom she’d imagined impaling her on his table surrounded by spaghetti.
She walks over, opens her mouth and tries not to be tongue-tied. The doctor’s lips are a knockout. They are wet and firm. She’d like to bite them there and then. Instead she asks him for that favor. The doctor smiles, tells her not to worry, to forget all about it and leave: he’ll deal with it. The head nurse walks off down the corridor and before going into the changing room, turns around one last time to check that he too was looking at her; he is. They exchange smiles, and she goes into the changing room. She changes quickly: it’s already ten minutes after when she should have left! She walks out of the building. Raises an arm to stop a taxi, has second thoughts, lowers it and stands rooted to the spot. Then she walks off, looks for a telephone box and, while she calls her friend’s fiancé and mutters a rather improbable excuse, she is calculating how long it will take the new doctor to come up with a slice of serious intent, and what she might do to help him along the way, if she feels he seems slow off the mark.
Fifty years ago, when the scholar decided to devote his life to writing the Great Work, he was already well aware that he would have to dispense with any activity that might consume even a tiny fraction of his time, and remain celibate and live without a television. The Great Work would be really so Great he couldn’t waste a moment on anything else. Indeed there could be nothing else but the Great Work. That was why he decided not to waste precious minutes looking for a publisher. The future would find one. He was so convinced of the value of what he was setting out to do, that, of necessity, when somebody discovered the volumes of the Great Work, unpublished, side by side, on the bookcase in the passage in his house, the first publisher to discover it (whoever he might be) would immediately recognize the importance of what was before him. But, if letters are now fading, whatever will remain of the Great Work?
The degeneration is relentless. Just when he has reworked the first three pages, he finds that the letters on pages 4, 5 and 6 are also fading. When he has reworked the letters on pages 4, 5 and 6, he discovers that those on 7, 8, 9 and 10 have been erased completely. When he has reworked 7, 8, 9 and 10, he finds those on page 11 to 27 have vanished.
He can’t waste time trying to deduce why the letters are being erased. He concentrates on reworking the first volume (the first volumes: he soon sees the second and third volumes are also deteriorating) and realizes that the time spent doing that won’t allow him to finish the concluding volumes. Without the colophon that should give the volumes he has already written their true sense, his fifty years of dedication will have been for naught. The initial volumes are simply the necessary, though not essential, groundwork to situate things in the space where he has to set out his genuinely innovative findings: namely, the final volumes. Without the latter, the Great Work will never be that. Hence his doubt: Shouldn’t he perhaps let the early volumes continue to fade and not waste time restoring them? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on his struggle against time to finish once and for all the final volumes (exactly how many are there: six, or seven?) so he can bring the Work to its climax, even at the risk of the first volumes fading away forever? Of the seventy-two he has written so far, he can certainly afford to lose the first seven or eight, even though they enabled him to gather a head of steam, they don’t contribute anything substantially new. However, then another doubt strikes him: When he has written the final full stop, will only the first seven or eight volumes have faded? Determined not to waste one minute more, he buckles down to work. He immediately stops. How come he hasn’t realized until now that, if he dies, and that person who is fated to discover the Great Work and take it to a publisher dillydallies making the discovery, the afflicted volumes won’t be seven or eight, but the whole lot? What should he do: stop writing and start seeking out a publisher right now, to avoid that risk, even though, without those concluding volumes, it will be impossible to demonstrate that his project is genuinely groundbreaking? However, if he devotes time and effort to looking for a publisher, he won’t be able to dedicate the necessary time to reworking the volumes as they keep wasting away, nor will he be able to write the final volumes. What should he do? He becomes a nervous wreck. Could a life of endless toil have been in vain? Yes, it could. What was the point of so much effort, single-minded devotion, celibacy and sacrifice? He thinks it has been one huge practical joke. He feels hatred growing within himself: hatred towards himself for a life misspent. And his inability to recover the time he has wasted doesn’t panic him as much as being certain that, at this juncture, it will be too late to decide how to make the most of the time left to him.
But he’s immediately back on the alert. Oh! He would give his all to be rid of that mouse, that shouldn’t arouse anyone’s sympathy. Why does he never win? Why does that little beast always escape? The cat knows that most of humanity loathes mice. What most people remember in horror from the ups and downs of war are not the dumdum bullets, the sleepless nights and starving days or trekking unshod with their feet wrapped in rags, but the rats. Why then do some humans forget their loathing and come out on the side of mice? Is it simply because they are the tiniest of creatures?
The cat returns to the charge. He swears yet again that the mouse won’t escape this time. He burns the house down; everything goes up in smoke, though the mouse survives. And when the master gets back from work, he beats the cat with a broom. The cat doesn’t relent. He chases the mouse yet again. Finally he catches it, throws it into a cement mixer, is about to switch it on when the dog appears. As the result of a law that is as incomprehensible as it is atavistic, the dog is always a friend to the mouse. That dog is carrying a humungous hammer in one paw. He brings it down on the cat’s head, flattening it like a sheet of paper.
But he revives immediately, receives a package in the mail and smiles. He fills the den where the mouse is hiding with gunpowder and lights a match. Everything explodes, but he has enough time to see that the mouse wasn’t inside and is now smirking repulsively at him from the front doorstep. Nothing ever changes.
Until many episodes later, the astonishing day comes when the cat is victorious.
After a chase down the passageway in the house (a chase like so many others), the cat catches the mouse. That has happened so often, but... The cat has held the mouse in its paw so often, like now, that not even the cat can believe this time he’s onto a winner. He spikes the mouse on a three-pronged fork, and blood spurts from each of the three wounds. The cat lights the burner. Puts a frying pan on top. Pours in oil. When the oil begins to spit, he throws in the mouse, that gradually fries, squeaking so frenziedly, even the cat pops a cork into both of his ears. That’s when he begins to understand that, on this occasion, something strange is happening. This time it is for real. The mouse’s body stiffens, turning blacker and blacker and giving off smoke. The mouse stares at the cat with a look the cat will never forget, and dies. The cat continues to fry the corpse. Then he removes it from the frying pan and burns it directly over the flames until it’s reduced to black, furrowed skin. He takes this from the flames, scrutinizes it closely and touches it with his claws: the skin crumbles into a thousand incinerated flakes the blustery wind scatters to the four points of the compass. For a moment, the cat feels hugely happy.
Quim Monzó was born in Barcelona in 1952. He is author of four collections of stories, including A Thousand Morons (Open Letter), and several novels, including Gasoline (Open Letter). His awards include the Lletra d’Or Prize for the best book of the year, and the Catalan Writers’ Award.
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