Bathrooms are dangerous.
He had known this since he was seven years of age, and he was about to be reminded again at the age of thirty seven.
After his parent’s divorce the boy had been sent to live with his grandmother in a little cottage overlooking the Atlantic ocean in the Portuguese town of Cortegaca. He had just turned seven.
From the beginning the salt air didn’t agree with him. His grandmother said this was because the filth of the city still clung to him like the percebe on the hulls of the fishing boats which dotted the western horizon each morning. What she meant was that he was an unwelcome reminder of the sorrow she felt after his mother – her only child – had married and moved to Madrid with her new husband. The boy’s presence served only to intensify the sense of abandonment she had felt for the ten years since her daughter’s departure.
Each morning the boy would stare across the brilliant ocean as his grandmother marched him towards the place where the previous high tide had deposited a litter of seaweed mixed with the shattered remains of crustaceans and the occasional confused tangle of fishing line. There she would remain, with the few strands of hair that had escaped her fierce and ever-present plait flying about her head as if mocking the severity of her visage, while he haltingly submerged his slight, naked body in the cold salty water. He did this because his grandmother told him too. He could not argue. It was the only way to remove the stench of the city, she told him.
It was not until his tiny scrotum burned with the cold and his teeth chattered like a pawl on a runaway ratchet that he dared creep – with submerged feet shovelling fine sand as he went – slowly back towards the shoreline where his grandmother waited with the towel she also used also for her own body and a single word; “repouso” – home.
The repetition of this ritual over many weeks led the boy to both fear and despise his grandmother, yet as time passed he wondered whether she had been right, and he had truly carried a taint on his body from the air of Madrid which was slowly being cleansed by the pica-shrivelling waters of the Atlantic. He began to savour the smell and taste of the pervasive salty air. Even his morning ritual immersion, silently and sternly observed by his Avó, (for he had begun to use the Portuguese term for grandmother in preference to the more familiar Spanish, Abuela), became at least bearable if not pleasant.
Now and then he was allowed to keep a treasure he found washed up on the sand, although any pebble or scrap of bleached timber larger than his small hand, and especially the skeletal remains of any sea creature (which he found fascinating), was forbidden save for one occasion when he had been allowed to keep the tiny, beautiful exo-skeleton of a sea-horse.
The boy’s grandmother took her morning and evening ablutions in the relative privacy of a small detached bathroom afforded – before her daughter’s divorce – by her son-in-law as a gift; although he saw the gesture as being more towards securing his wife’s peace of mind than his mother-in-law’s comfort.
The boy was allowed the use of the bathroom in the evening, after his grandmother had bathed. He shared the same water which was raised from a bore via a large cast-iron hand pump in the back yard and transported to the rusty yellowed-enamel bath in a steel bucket.
On Sundays, the boy was permitted to warm two buckets of water on the fuel stove in the kitchen before adding them to the contents of the bath. This was the greatest luxury afforded by their simple existence as the boy’s mother barely earned enough to keep herself housed and clothed in the outlying suburb Madrid where worked as a shop assistant. The boy had heard nothing of his father in the months since he had arrived in Cortegaca.
One Sunday evening as he waited, hoping the old woman would not take so long with her bath as to render what warmth there was left in the tepid water imperceptible, the boy heard a series of noises which momentarily startled, and then puzzled him. First there was a loud squeak such as you could make by sliding your finger across a freshly washed plate, followed by a slapping noise, then silence.
It took a minute or more for the boy to decide he should go to see what had made the noise, as he knew he risked the wrath of his grandmother if he disturbed her ritual. He thought it would be possible to see through the space between the badly fitted bathroom door and the frame within which it was hung without being seen, although he had never had the courage, nor the inclination, to do so before.
The boy wondered what he would say if he was caught peeping. His pulse quickened as he positioned his eye close enough to the door frame as to allow the widest possible view of the small room’s interior. The smell of his grandmother’s piss (for the room also functioned as a makeshift toilet) was the first thing to meet the boy’s senses as he ad- justed the angle of his vision and his eyes became accustomed to the candlelit interior of the bath. In an instant his head was jerked backwards as his small frame recoiled in horror with the realisation that the old woman was staring directly at the crack in the door frame through which he was peering.
He waited, breathlessly still, for the storm of abuse to break over his head, but there was nothing. After some time had passed, he decided to hazard another look. Perhaps she hadn’t seen him at all. Could she have simply been daydreaming, as he often did, and not even have registered the visual clue to his presence on the other side of the bathroom door?
Once again he lowered his head to the place through where he now knew he could see most clearly. Once again as his eyes adjusted to the light he saw the face of his grandmother. He noticed this time her head was all that was visible above the top of the old freestanding bath, and that she was smiling. It was an expression he had never before seen and the boy found it unnerving. It was as if she had thought of something funny, and then her mind had drifted, while the smile remained fixed on her lips.
The elongated shadow cast by the timber cottage blocked the morning sun’s rays from reaching the narrow path by which the boy and his grandmother ap- proached the beach each day. The small building was plain and unremarkable except for the kitchen chimney which jutted skywards at an awkward angle due to an error in its construction. Translated in dark silhouette onto the rippled sand of the beach, the chimney’s conical steel cap sometimes seemed to be pointing out the spot where the boy’s grandmother would wait, towel in hand, for him to return from the freezing foam of the ocean each day.
As he made his way down the sandy slope towards the shoreline the boy watched his lone shadow emerge from the confines of the one cast by his grandmother’s house with a mixture of resignation and curiosity. Without pre- meditation he raised his arms high above his head sending two corresponding shadows shooting out towards the sea and azure horizon beyond. He repeated this gesture several times at different speeds, watching the way the shadows rippled across the sand and the ease which which they travelled.
High above the windswept shore, a lone seagull which had been wheeling and diving silently overhead let out a rasping cry.
The boy stood for a moment, contemplating the confusion of events he had just left behind before letting the towel drop from his shoulder, and removing the oversized t-shirt and underpants which served as his pyjamas. He glanced back towards the cottage momentarily, as if to confirm what he already knew, then ran down to the surf.
Ironically, it was his grandmother’s insistence on the subjugation of his will under her authority that made it possible for him to maintain the semblance of normalcy under which he now functioned in her absence. While the boy would never have contemplated such a frivolous act as waving his arms above his head and watching the shadows play on the pale sand in the presence of the old woman, it was still to her – for better or worse – he owed the stoicism with which he faced this new day, and his new life, alone.
It was by sheer strength of will he had so far suppressed the tide of bitter an- guish rising inside his chest and threatening to drown his fragile world. Only after he entered the water and allowed the gentle buffeting of the surf against his lean frame to soothe the knotted muscles in his back and arms did he allow precious few tears to fall and be swallowed by the vast ocean.
Even then he could not help regarding the act of crying with a suspicion once again derived from the old woman. It seemed as if the tears he shed were somehow someone else’s. Some- one who was weak and should be looked down upon.
The word escaped his lips involuntarily.
Throughout the night the boy had crouched beside his grandmother’s still form; stunned and in awe of the circumstance in which he found himself. Isolated by their solitary existence there was no help to be had nearby and he had no way of knowing that with each passing minute his grandmother was losing her grasp on life.
It was the first time the boy had ever seen his grandmother’s hair out of the plait she otherwise wore day and night. The cascade of silver-grey had fallen out of the plastic shower cap she wore when she slipped and fell. It now fell about her shoulders and breasts and down past her waist making her look like an aged fragile Lady Godiva.
He could not help but reach out and touch her prone figure.
Seeing his grandmother unclothed did not alarm the boy. Back in Madrid his mother thought nothing of walking around their apartment in various states of undress. Much the the annoyance of his father, the boy was still allowed to share his mother’s bath and bed, where the pair would sometimes engage in mock lover’s embraces, kissing and melodramatically declaring their love for each other. It was a game the boy was particularly fond of and he would often pretend to fall asleep soon afterwards hoping to be allowed to stay nestled in his mother’s arms.
Now as he knelt beside the silent motionless form of his grandmother the boy was overcome by a sense of loneliness. He dabbed at a tear which had run down her expressionless face using a handkerchief he’d retrieved from her coat pocket – along with the sea horse skeleton he thought he had lost some weeks before – then reverently kissed her cheek.
The faint, shallow breath the boy could still hear with his face close to hers was the only sign his grandmother was still with him.
She had not moved since he found her, and although her eyes were open they gave no hint that she was aware of her surroundings.
The internal haemorrhage caused by the fall and clashing of her head on the rim of the bathtub had initially robbed the old woman of the power to move or communicate, while leaving intact her senses of sight, hearing, and touch; as time passed, the unstemmed flow of blood into the soft lining of her cranial cavity would diminish even these.
She felt the boy’s soft dry lips on her cheek and heard his pleading declaration but could do nothing to communicate the words which repeatedly arose from the depths of her failing consciousness to consume and torment her.
“Meu filho, meu filho.” My son, my son.