Authors: Barbara Wilson
however, nature consisted of forces
that work beneath the surface
which was merely
Y NAME IS CASSANDRA REILLY
and I don't live anywhere. At least that's what I tell people when they ask. I was raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but I left when I was sixteen and I can hardly remember when that was. I have an Irish passport and make a sort of living as a translator, chiefly of Spanish, and chiefly of South American novels, at least at the moment. I rent an upstairs room in a tall Georgian house in Hampstead and another room in Oakland, California from an old friend Lucy Hernandez. These are my most permanent residences, by which I mean I receive mail there. But often as not I'm travelling: a conference here, a book fair there, a yen to see some part of the world I don't know yet. On my way back from Hong Kong I'll get an urge to see a friend in Kyoto and end up teaching English in Japan for two months. Or I'll decide I need to catch up with an old lover in Uruguay, and political events will keep me there longer than I expected.
I'm rarely anywhere more than a few months at a time and that's the way I like it. Of course my Irish relatives in County Cork believe my real spiritual home is Ballybarnacle, and sometimes I believe it too. Ireland is always green and magical in my mind and sometimesâon a crowded train snaking through India, on a sweltering day in a Columbian jailâI long for its mists and rocky shores. But hardly ever when I'm there.
I had been back in London for almost three months after a challenging six weeks in Iceland visiting a new friend, the volcano expert Ingrid BiritsdÃ³ttir. Money was tight and I had been forced to take on a larger translation project than I generally likeâa lavishly written, complicated novel by the fourteenth writer to be compared to Garcia MÃ¡rquez. Actually, it was by a woman, so she was only the fifth author to be dubbed “the new female Garcia MÃ¡rquez.”
Gloria de los Angeles was her pen name, and her wildly popular novel was entitled
La Grande y su hija
The Big One and Her Daughter.
Told by a young woman, MarÃa, it had jungles and decaying colonial cities, plagues and miracles, a sinister villain called Raoul, a revolutionary named Eduardo and strong women like Cristobel, MarÃa's mother and the
of the title, who nevertheless was reduced to quivering guava jelly whenever Eduardo emerged from the jungle. Gloria de los Angeles was a Venezuelan mother of four, I had learned, who had previously translated Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel into Spanish.
La Grande y su hija
had swept Spain and South America and was poised, so the British publisher believed, to do the same in England and North America. A better title would help, though the English editor hadn't liked the American agent's suggestion:
Big Mama's Baby Daughter.
I was up to page two hundred and forty-five and still had about seventy-five pages of the first draft to go. My deadline was June 1, two months away. I had saved time by not reading the book in advance, which had the added advantage of keeping me in a continual state of astonishment at Gloria de los Angeles's inventive plot line.
In any other country it would have been spring, but England keeps its own counsel about the weather, and had decided that a few more weeks of sleet, hail and freezing winds were good for the English, the one people on earth who think you should feel damp and chilled inside as well as outside. Up in my room it was cozy; a few days ago, in honor of it being the first of April, I had turned off one of my heaters, but tonight I had it back on again. I was surrounded at my desk, in fact, by four heaters. When you get into your forties it's harder to keep warm on your own anymore.
From downstairs I could hear the faint sounds of a Vivaldi bassoon concerto. Olivia Wulf, who owned the house, was a former first violinist with the English Chamber Orchestra. Now in her seventies, she was wheelchair-bound and cared for by her old friend and mine Nicola Gibbons, an accomplished bassoonist and Vivaldi scholar. In the evening the two of them often liked to arrange small baroque concerts for themselves. Although months and occasionally years went by between my stays here, this house, even more than the one in Oakland, was my post office, clothes closet and information center. I might forget in the deepest Amazon what new cultural and political developments were really significant, but when I came back to London I could count on Nicky, an ardent socialist-feminist as well as a fervent theater- and concert-goer, to help me get caught up.
I had just plunged into Chapter Twelve, which opened:
When I was thirteen a series of flash fires mysteriously combusted all through the river basin, causing no great harm to villages or to the jungle dwellers, animal or human, but great alarm to the parrots which scattered like leaves before a storm, blood-red and shrieking dementedly. I was not to know this for years but the fires coincided with the menopause of my long-lost mother Cristobel, who, lying in a darkened room of her great shabby palace in the city, her ivory forehead covered in cool cloths smelling faintly of rosewater, and remembering the scenes of her youth, was lighting conflagrations of memory along the banks of the fabulous river of silver,
when the phone rang and, shortly after, a gong sounded far below to let me know that I should pick up the line.
The voice on the phone was American; there was a weak buzzing in the background that made it clear the call was coming from across the Atlantic. Across a few dozen states as well.
“Is this Cassandra Reilly?”
It was a woman with a pleasantly husky voice, slightly distorted by the long-distance crackling. “You don't know me but I'm a friend of Lucy's in Oakland. My name is Frankie Stevens.”
“Yes?” I was hesitant. Lucy might be one of my oldest friends, but I had just gotten rid of one visitor, someone's Alaskan cousin visiting Europe for the first time, and wasn't eager to play hostess again for a year or two.
The contralto voice paused. “I've got a slight problem and Lucy thought you might be able to help me. Since you speak Spanish.”
“A translation job?” Again, I wasn't overly enthusiastic. The last friend of a friend who'd called up had wanted me to translate a computer program on managing your own vineyard from Spanish to English. Besides, I was up to my armpits with innocent but wise Cristobel and her diabolical first husband Raoul.
“Well, yes. LookâI wonder if we might talk about this in person? I'm flying to Heathrow this evening and that will put me in London tomorrow afternoon. I'll be staying at a hotel near Russell Square. Can we meet?”
I hesitated loudly.
Frankie said, “I'll make it worth your while.”
I doubted that. Still, what was the harm? Even if Frankie were to propose the preposterous it couldn't be more bizarre than anything in this novel. And I probably needed a breakâI was starting to lose my grip on reality.
So I suggested we meet in the Abyssinian rooms at the British Museum. Four p.m. Frankie said she would be wearing red.
The Abyssinians were not people with whom you'd probably enjoy spending a spring day, rainy or sunny. They seemed like the kind of guys who would enslave you as soon as look at you. The friezes were full of long lines of captives in chains, carrying animal, vegetable and mineral tribute and looking glum and apprehensive, no doubt for good reason. I was very fond, however, of the wavy river lines at the bottom of the friezes and the fish that jumped through them.
I was right on time but there was no woman in red in sight. I hadn't known how to describe myself. My last lover called me “desiccated,” but that, I'm sure, was just pique that I had called things off first. On the other hand, age
made me a bit scrawny and tough, and it's hard to pamper one's skin on the road. On my better days I believe I resemble the middle-aged Katherine Hepburn.
Today I was dressed in a warm wool jumpsuit and my black leather bomber jacket. My hair, which one hairstylist had referred to as an Irish Afro, was bundled up under a black beret with an old
Troops Out Now
button. I wear my beret and my political sentiments whenever I meet prospective clients whom I suspect might be thinking of taking advantage of me.
I waited and waited. I hoped that Frankie hadn't been stopped at immigration. Maybe she was a drug dealer and I'd be implicated through a traced phone call. The narcotics squad would break into my attic room, take one look at my South American newspaper clippings and peg me for a coca baroness.
The Abyssinian rooms were not crowded, even on this rainy day when tourists flooded the museum. Most of the visitors were huddled around the Egyptian mummies and the Elgin Marbles. Only a few Japanese tourists, multiply-cameraed, peered with me at the long rows of captives and warriors. I fell into a kind of reverie about history, war and violence, and was only roused by the jaunty energy of someone advancing towards me.
A woman in a stretchy bright red tunic, black mini-skirt and black tights came tripping lightly as a gymnast over the stone floor. Her lipstick was a cheerful gash against her pale face and she wore a dozen red and black plastic bangles around her thin white wrists. Something about her face appealed to me right away; it was impish with a triangular chin and widely-spaced hazel eyes. Her hair was auburn and chaotically, delightfully curly, corkscrewed like that of a Shirley Temple doll. She was in her late twenties.
She skidded to a stop in front of me; on her feet were silly pointed black shoes. She wrinkled her nose. “Cassandra?”
You could tell she was American: the first thing she did was throw her arms around me and squeeze me tight. “Glad to meet you!”
Frankie reminded me of a young Irish setter, leggy, friendly, frisky. Upstairs, where I took her for tea, she beamed at the waitresses behind the counter and told the woman at the cash register to have a nice day.
“This is my first time in London,” she said dramatically. “And you know what my first thought was? Wow, they really do talk like
You're lucky to live here.” She polished off a scone with strawberry jam and lit a Camel. “And I just can't thank you enough for agreeing to help me.”
“I haven't agreed to anything,” I reminded her pleasantly.
“Oh, I know,” she said quickly and wrinkled her nose, as if we were already complicit. “Agreeing to meet me, I meanâ¦ Lucy spoke so highly of youâ¦ I felt sure you'd be the right person for this job, and now that I've met you I'm positive.”
She looked at me brightly, and repeated, “You just seem
“What exactly is this job?” I asked.
“It's simple, really,” she said. “I'm looking for someone in Barcelona and I need a translator to go with me.”
“Barcelona!” I said. I loved Barcelona. “I'm in the middle of a big project here,” I said. “I can't just take off and go to Barcelona.”
“Oh, it wouldn't be for long,” she assured me. “A few days maybe. Not more than a week. I'll pay your round-trip airfare of course, and a hundred dollars a day for expenses. Whether or not you're able to find the person I'm looking for I'll pay you a thousand dollars, but if you do find him, it will be three thousand. Think about it, Cassandra,” she said, in a deeper drawl, “three thousand for just a few days' work.”