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The Conquest of the Incas (Chapter One)

Lima was dazzling. At least, this stretch was, its low-rise casinos smothered in loops of neon. The sky seemed darker here but only insofar as the velvet of a jewellery box is dark. What you felt was a festive air; an atmosphere of jubilee or carnival. But, as we approached, I realised that the streets were empty. Shadows had claimed the town. Starkly defined, they dipped their fingers into everything. The clouds that were smeared across the sky now served to underline the sense of abandonment; of somewhere that had been left to its own devices in a moral vacuum.

Of course, I was tired. I’d hardly slept. I’d been bullied by the plane. Once, it had jerked downwards, and I’d lost my book. The man next to me had picked it up. Later, he nudged my arm. It was a blunt, peremptory gesture, one that I chose to interpret as being friendly. He pointed at the window and there they were: the Andes. It looked like someone had gouged them out with a clumsy thumb. It was too much; there were too many of them. They came much closer to us than I’d expected, and I couldn’t work out what I was feeling. Resigned, I think. I eyed them warily, just as I was eyeing the traffic now. We were meant to be waiting at the lights but had edged beyond them and were straining in the middle of the junction with the other cars edging towards us, nudging at our doors and bumper. Everyone was beeping continuously but it was so constant as to be inexpressive – a dissonant uproar. It sounded like one voice; like Lima was blaring in our ear. Our driver looked perfectly serene. His face, with its wide, flat cheekbones and broad forehead, looked remote. His name, the guide had told us, was Ernesto. He had leapt up into the driver’s seat, had patted the sign that said “Dios es mi copiloto”, had rubbed his hands together and shouted “Vamonos!” Now all one could make out was a slight tightening of his hands on the steering wheel. It was a form of machismo – a game of chicken that nobody was acknowledging.

I tried to close my eyes but couldn’t keep them shut. I saw that the man who had sat next to me on the plane was two seats down. He had a slick upbrush of hair and a broad, unrestful back. He couldn’t, quite, settle into his seat. His hand kept floating up towards his hairline or else out towards the window, where it danced against the pane. I saw that his attention had been snagged by something happening outside. A man’s shadow had appeared from around the corner of one of the buildings. Huge, it seemed to swagger from side to side. When the man appeared, he looked feeble by comparison. He was hunched into a windcheater and was walking determinedly, and slightly unsteadily, past the “Backcow” steak restaurant. His feet, like a dancer’s, were making little feints and adjustments. As he came level with our minibus, he was approached, suddenly, by two men. One had his arm out in a sideways salute that swiftly became a conspiratorial-looking hug – a gathering in, so that the other man’s arms were locked against his sides. The other stood slightly behind them and to the left, looking around them. You could tell that the man didn’t know them, there had been no greeting or acknowledgement, but he put up surprisingly little resistance, just gave a couple of muted shrugs as though he were working the stiffness out of his shoulders. Perhaps the first man had a knife – he had his back to us but you could see that his free arm was held across his chest, pointing roughly at the other man’s arm. He bent his head slightly, beginning to murmur or mutter something, and the two of them walked off together, the first man’s arm around the other man’s shoulders in a parody of affection. The man at the back looked briefly behind him and his face, entirely expressionless, seemed to be looking directly at me – to be daring me to say something; to do something other than stare in this abstracted fashion.

Almost nobody seemed to have noticed anything. Our guide, Carlos, had squeezed himself against the seat in front, his legs in a z-shape. He had a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes and he was staring at a hand-held computer, studying it carefully then banging, in a sudden frenzy, at the keys. As for the rest of them – I could only see their backs. I was aware of their most obvious characteristics: two tense and giggly girls; a middle-aged woman on her own; a man in a peaked cap, holding himself erect. There were two couples, one of which I had already noticed when I was waiting for my baggage. They had seemed almost wilfully conspicuous. She had on a fleece and jeans but the fleece was three-quarters undone, exposing a low-cut T-shirt and a prodigious bust, and the jeans were tight around her legs and buttocks. Her shoulder-length hair was a bright blonde. As I watched, she reapplied her makeup, smoothing the side of her mouth with her little finger as though her face, betraying signs of age and tiredness, needed to be moulded and remoulded. The man was the man with the upwards-yearning tuft. He had muscled his way into the crowd around the conveyor belt, taking his space as if by right. Forcing his way backwards with his suitcases, he had been cheerfully relentless, smiling at everyone but hauling his suitcase through them all the same. He was short, but he gave the impression of bigness, and of a formidable self-approval. He didn’t want just to move among the people who were surrounding him; he wanted them to acknowledge him. Now he seemed to be the only other person watching what was going on outside. Surely I should say something? The urge was similar to the urge to vomit. They had led the man to a doorway in which the shadow was so thick that it acted like a curtain. The first man pushed him backwards – you could no longer see him – and the second man jumped suddenly into action; jumped literally, propelling himself forwards like a diver. Both men were punching and kicking him now but the bus was crawling forwards, we were over the junction, and I had to lean backwards over the seat to see what was going on. As they receded, they began to look strangely balletic and to seem to recede, somewhat, in importance. I should have said something earlier, I thought, even as I allowed them to get further and further away. You could only see the back of the attackers’ arms and legs now, flickering as if they were in firelight. I consoled myself with the thought that it was certainly only punching and kicking that I had seen and that there had been nothing to suggest the man was being stabbed. My last glimpse was of someone pulling something aloft – a windcheater, probably.

I looked at the man in front of me. He was still staring at what had happened and, if it wasn’t for his face, I might have said something. It was a powerful face, brutal and babyish. His close-cropped hair went up into that peak, zany and almost inappropriate, and there was a hooped earring in his left ear. It gave him a raffish, piratical air; a hint of drama. Just now, amazingly, he seemed to be smiling. As I watched, he nodded, once, to himself, in what looked like satisfaction. It was an oddly private moment; one that I didn’t want him to know I’d seen. I glanced quickly at the driver. He was looking in his rear-view mirror. Noticing me, he shrugged, one man of the world to another. What could you do? I felt relieved. More: absolved. We shared a feeling of superiority. To what? The muggers? The victim? Their circumstances? I’m not sure that either of us could have told you.

Anyway, we were staying in Miraflores, an “affluent suburb” according to the guidebook. There were broad lawns and balconies and three-storey supermarkets but in the residential district there were also prominent, sturdy-looking intercoms. Our hostel had a courtyard with a fountain and a cage of colourful songbirds but there was a sign in my room that said that visitors weren’t allowed after ten o’clock in the evening, for reasons of safety. The room itself had a stone floor, a shower and a ceiling fan. There was even a little kitchenette. I did what I always did now that I holidayed on my own and placed the clothes in the drawers with exaggerated care, one on top of the other. Judy had always flung everything into a heap so that I’d find them clinging together in the morning. Of course, I slept, as usual, in the normal place, out on the further reaches of the left side of the bed.

I woke to the sound of car horns. Lima was grey, its buildings and cars drifting in fog, and the horns were muffled; lost and mournful-sounding. At the desk, the woman produced a map. She was long and angular, leaning over it with a stern, capable appearance of concern. She told me that I had to stay inside the square. She had drawn it on a map of Lima – four streets, surrounding the centre. She told me that I shouldn’t go to the Museum of Art because the children would steal my hat and glasses. She was scribbling over the map, effacing whole streets and districts. I told her that she had misunderstood; that we were being picked up later and that I had only wanted to stroll around Miraflores. She looked relieved. I saw myself as she must see me, a pasty forty-year-old man in long shorts and a pair of walking sandals. Smiling, she told me that I could go down to the arcade that overlooked the beach but that I must not go down to the beach itself. She shook her finger at me.

“Bad man,” she said.

“Men,” I said, pedantic as always, but she had giggled and now she was ruffling my hair. I was squaring my shoulders, I realised, and this is what she was referring to. Her sense that this was comic was accurate: outside, in the fog, I was as timid as she had expected me to be. People came suddenly into focus as if it were intentional. The men were as bewildering, as removed from context, as a line of masks in an abandoned hallway: the supermarkets, the cafés, the “Old Pub” and the “photoshop” counted for nothing. I couldn’t even see the sea. I was glad to get back inside and to ascend the curved stone staircase up to the dining room with its small wooden tables and beaded place mats. In the corner, a TV was playing CNN: a market square, all its attendant life, and then an explosion, something that seemed to punch a hole in the foreground so that debris could come hurtling through. A party of elderly tourists were reclining their heads towards it. This wasn’t so much a sign of seriousness as of not being able to hear. The man with the earring was moving the tables, dragging them together so that they seemed to be squealing in protest. He arranged the chairs somewhat fussily, making sure that they were all facing in the right direction. In the end, we had nine places. He placed his hands on the last chair and, once again, his fingers seemed to dance. He seemed unaware of them; they seemed, almost, to be disobedient. As he sat down, they continued to make arabesques in front of him. He sat in the centre, facing me, with his wife beside him. Bringing his hands to heel, he spread them outwards in an expansive gesture.

“Voila,” he said.

He made it sound like “wolla”; like the beginning of a football chant. He was wearing a T-shirt that showed Mickey Mouse quivering, without his clothes, at the end of a revolver. The gun was being held by another cartoon character, a meercat in sunglasses and a bandana. I nodded and smiled, aware that I was expected to be appreciative. He put his hand out.

“Stephen,” he said.


“Duncan: my wife. Sheila.”

Sheila smiled and gave a little wave. Her nails were an icy pink and she had on a charm bracelet, a tiny set of links from which were suspended what looked like Monopoly pieces: Jack Russells, an iron and a top hat. Her hair was teased over her shoulders. Stephen was studying me. He leaned forwards slightly, saying:

“See that last night?”

“Oh. Yes.”

I looked down at my plate, remembering the look that I’d seen on his face.

“The mugging,” I said.

“The mugging.”

He grinned.

“Is that what you think it was?”

“You don’t?”

He shrugged. He was a muscular man and the taut definition of his upper arms made the gesture seem slightly exaggerated. His whole body, it seemed, was partaking in its rejection of what I had just said.

“Don’t ask me, boss,” he said.

He leant over, stretching past his wife for a bread roll. Our breakfast had been waiting for us on the tables: rolls in a basket, two bananas on each plate and mango juice that seemed to have clotted in the glass. He tore the roll in half and stuffed half in his mouth. He raised a hand in apology but he continued to talk.

“Just got here,” he said. “But all I’m saying.”

He moved his head judiciously from side to side. To my right, I could see people running and screaming; a building bleeding smoke.

“All I’m saying is. Well, Christ. Like broad daylight; fucking cars everywhere. I wouldn’t, would you?”

I wondered if I’d winced visibly when he swore. I said:

“I’m almost certain that I saw them take something.”



“What? What did they take?”

It was odd, this tone of pedantry. His was a different mode to mine. In his estuarine accent, full of elisions and glottal stops, it sounded aggressively insistent – a form of hectoring. Still, the expression on his face was pleasant enough. I shook my head.

“I can’t be sure,” I said. “A windcheater?”

“A windcheater. Come on. What, socks as well?”

I shrugged, weakly.

“Gangs,” Stephen said. “Boof. Brute justice.”

He had thwacked his left hand into his palm. The last phrase was odd, I thought, and mangled-sounding, a quote perhaps. He sat back, looking satisfied. It wasn’t only the satisfaction of having scored a point. I could see that the notion itself was pleasant to him; it had the neatness, the appropriateness, of television violence. Of course, last night, it had seemed as though we were watching television. I wasn’t convinced but saw that my assent was called for. Nodding, I looked around us. The table had filled up. The other couple were to my left, making a show of listening, hoping to be included. Stephen leaned across and took their hands, one after the other. He took everybody’s hand, showing himself to be something of a politician, albeit a rough and ready one. I wondered what he did at home. He had got everybody’s names and now he was making little jokes that emphasized the strangeness of the place, the clotted juice and dismal fog. The inference was that we were a club, or gang, now – that we were all English together. Already, the loudness and the liveliness of our conversation was dominating the room, in contrast to the reticence of the other diners. Stephen looked swiftly around him. Widening his eyes, he put his finger to his lips and went “Shhhhh!” He did this deliberately loudly, causing the people near the television to look over in his direction. Mia, the girl to my right, lowered her eyelids and displayed her teeth in appreciation. Minutes later, her friend, Jess, was still giggling, as though Stephen’s sally were itself a kind of delayed bomb. Mia had short, layered hair and a face whose determining characteristic seemed to be its fierce engagement; the way in which she appeared to be pushing it towards you even when she was smiling and sitting backwards in her chair. Jess was altogether softer. She had been smiling almost constantly and this, coupled with her slow, deliberate movements, gave her the air of someone of a gentle, empathetic disposition. As I watched, she buttered two rolls, placing one of them on Mia’s plate. Mia nodded, distracted. Jess was frumpy and uncomplaining but she was also, in some manner, acting out the role of someone who was frumpy and uncomplaining. There was a proudish tilt to her head; her self-abnegation was a form of self-assertion.

“Small bites,” she said, continuing to smile.

At the end of the table, the other man had turned his seat around so that he could see the television. He was still wearing the peaked cap that he had been wearing last night but this morning he was in a pair of combat trousers and a pink shirt. The shirt was too smart, a work shirt with a collar, and the effect was disconcerting, as though he had been forced to get up and made to put on the first clothes that had come to hand. Taken individually, most of his features were perfectly regular but there was a strangeness about them; a lack of focus. His eyebrows didn’t match, but that wasn’t it. His forehead was bulbous, true, but not strictly out of proportion. It was more that things were oddly, indefinably out of kilter. His face seemed blurred; his head too round. Stephen was leaning over in his direction, shouting,


He was rolling something between his fingers. Then he threw it, a bread pellet, and it just missed the other man’s head.

“Dave,” he said.

The man’s smile came and went in a sort of spasm. He was still sitting facing the television, his thin body weirdly erect, but had moved his head so that he was facing Stephen. Both hands were resting on his knees.

“David,” he said.

There was a pause. Stephen had raised his eyebrows.

“If you don’t mind,” David said.

Stephen seemed to rear slightly backwards in his chair. Diane, the other wife, tittered. Stephen sighed.

“David,” he said.

He pronounced it with an exaggerated patience and his face had hardened a little. His eyes looked slightly glazed.

“Did you think that you might want to join us?”

David blinked. He looked like a fish that had been dragged painfully out of its natural element. Then his mouth flickered again. I could see that it was meant to be ingratiating. It quivered there for a moment. He had raised a finger.

“One moment,” he said.

He turned around and leaned towards the television. From where we were, you could hardly make out what was being said. Stephen was playing to the gallery now, his arms outflung in mock exasperation. I heard Sheila say his name but it was too late: he had thrown another bread pellet. It bounced, backwards, from David’s cap on to the table. I wasn’t sure if David had felt it. It was another minute or two before he turned around and said, to the woman next to him,

“I’m a history teacher.”

The woman, Susan, was younger than me, thirty-five or thereabouts, but was reserved in the same way, I thought, that I was – she had, by now, abstracted herself from the hilarity that surrounded Stephen. She smiled at David.

“My husband was exactly the same,” she said.

I thought that that was wonderfully deft. The moment, if there had been a moment, passed. Stephen could not now make an example of David without insulting Susan’s husband; he had to satisfy himself by shaking David’s hand and saying,

“Welcome back.”

Carlos arrived before we had finished breakfast. He was bare-headed this morning and his hair looked as though he had buffed it into a glossy sheen. No more than twenty, he lollopped eagerly up to Stephen, who was beckoning him over. His face was, as it were, professionally open; it shone there briefly before he squatted down at Stephen’s side. Stephen placed one arm around his shoulders. He belonged to him, the inference was. To us. Carlos was saying,

“Your mini-bus.”

He was smiling broadly, gratified by Stephen’s gesture. He made a gesture of his own, a tiny cursive flourish, that made it look as though the bus was his gift to us. He modestly inclined his head. Stephen patted him, a pet, and said,

“Come on. Chop chop.”

This was to us. We would have got up anyway, but it looked, now, as though he were in charge. Carlos, meanwhile, stood smilingly beside him, reduced to being his amenuensis. He had pushed both arms downwards, saying “Is OK”, when Martin, Diane’s husband, had tried to leave a tip and you could briefly see another Carlos, a solemn, capable Carlos, beneath this slap-happy amiability. I mumbled “camera” in Stephen’s direction. In my room, I put my camera in my bag, tightly affixed my money belt then checked my hair, something I hadn’t done for a long time. I attributed the gesture to the presence of people generally. In the mini-bus, Carlos was saying,

“Francisco Pizarro, our founder. He come on the feast of Epiphany, also called the Day of the Kings. Because of this, Lima’s first name was City of the Kings.”

This was all said more or less atonally, in the sing-song delivery of a child who is reciting something by rote.

“Today,” he said, “we will go to the Museu de Antropologia y Arqueologia. Also, the Cathedral, where our founder is buried.”

We were moving by now and I noticed that David was sitting stiffly to attention. He was staring at a point directly in front of him, unlike the others, who were all peering out of the windows. Outside, the mist had all but disappeared and, for the first time, the city seemed to be itself – prosaic and ugly; a crush of makeshift buildings. Washing lines were hung next to a road that was so polluted that I could taste the petrol. At the lights, children were trying to sell sweets. They came to the windows and pointed to them and, if this failed, made eyes at you and pointed to their mouths. All around them, cars and buses were coming slyly, inexorably together. Ernesto’s hand was on the horn and he was pressing it, as it were, absentmindedly. I saw that David’s chest was going rapidly up and down and that he kept feeling, pointlessly, for his hat. As I watched, he gagged then floundered upwards. He had knocked my day-pack over and now he was struggling with the door, saying,

“I can’t. I’m sorry. It’s just. I’m sorry: I can’t.”

Stephen had stretched out an arm, attempting to restrain him, but David smacked his hand away. His nostrils were dilated and his eyes were rolling in their sockets. I had got up – I was across the aisle from him and had unobstructed access – but it was too late, he had wrenched the door open and now he jumped out, holding onto his hat as he did so. We were barely moving but, even so, his legs gave a slight jolt and he stumbled forwards before he could right himself. He ran clumsily between the cars and disappeared around the corner. I stared after him. Somebody, Mia or Jess, said,

“Oh. My. God.”

The bus had begun to pick up speed and Stephen leant over and closed the door. I sat down.

Susan said,

“Shouldn’t we go back for him?”


Stephen shook his head.

“Leave him. No point.”

It was possible to detect a hint of amusement, but he was also stroking the hand that David had smacked. Something, some sense of himself, was playing behind his eyes. He had become more compacted, somehow; less amenable to outside influence. Everyone else was sharing a careful look of solemn, incredulous bewilderment. Carlos was standing up but he didn’t seem to know what to do or say. Stephen leant over and patted his arm.

“Don’t worry about it, mate.”

There was a brief exchange between Ernesto and Carlos but Ernesto was driving forwards even as they spoke. He shrugged, which seemed to settle it. Carlos talked to somebody on a mobile phone but then he smiled, graciously, and made another awkward gesture, meaning “onwards”. Nobody seemed to know what they should say, although I did see Stephen grin, once, at his wife. His eyebrows went rapidly up and down. It was a look that, despite itself, seemed to be almost entirely without humour. I found that I was looking at Stephen’s hand again; at the fingers that had suddenly ceased to dance. In the museum, we were peering at an arquebus, an unwieldy musket that had been brought over in the conquest, when he said,

“He could do with that.”

He sketched an invisible hat then doddered a little, saying

“I’m gonna get me a waaabbit.”

He made the “waaa” sound like a baby’s cry. Martin snorted, and, yes, it was funny – you saw, suddenly, that David had the same bulbous forehead and put-upon look as Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. The others were clustered around some chain-mail and Carlos was translating the inscription. Stephen looked over at them.

“That as well,” he said.

He thumbed his nose thoughtfully.

“He’s fucking meat.”

It was difficult to know how to respond to this. Still, I could see what he meant. If David had seemed out of place at breakfast what would it be like for him elsewhere? As if in illustration, a group of men were staring at us outside the museum. They looked sullen and dispirited, their hands deep in their trouser pockets. They seemed at one with the fog; with the way it seemed to sidle everywhere. With the car horns, too; with the intransigence of their assertion. In the centre of Lima, there were police with riot shields and slums that were packed so tightly up a hill that they looked like rubbish that had been poured over it. The cathedral was on one of the few attractive squares, the Plaza de Armas. Inside, it was starkly grandiose. There were colourful mock-gothic arches, carved wooden choirstalls and a representation of the Madonna, crowned by one of the popes and presented with a gold rose. There was also the tomb in which they’d placed Pizarro’s coffin. Above you was an idealized Pizarro, handsome and slim, with a neat beard and a plumed hat. He was pointing, ambiguously, at what looked like a group of Indians. It was an image of righteous decisiveness, just as the image, elsewhere, of Bishop Valverde was of calm and poise. Atahahualpa, the Inca, was standing beside him. The pictures were crude and it was difficult to read their faces. It was more a matter of posture – of the relationship between one body and another. Carlos looked up and then away. He cleared his throat.

“This man,” he said. “The bishop. Very religious. And this man.”

He pointed, vaguely, in the direction of Atahualpa.

“He show disrespect. He spit on the bible, trample on it, I don’t know. Whatever he do is very bad. And so…”

There was a pause. He was evidently searching for the right word. Stephen was smiling.

“Boof,” he said.

He had slapped his hand into his palm again. Carlos had flinched, but now he grinned.

“Yes,” he said. “Boof. Is right word. Yes.”

He arranged his face into a look of ponderous solemnity.

“Pizarro very sad. But he sees that it is...”

“Necessary,” I said.

Carlos nodded, gratefully. I turned to the others.

“He had him strangled,” I said.

Mia said,


“It’s true, he was troubled, but.”

But Carlos had brightened. He was leading us to the vestments, the chasuble and hat and shoes of an Archbishop who had helped the Indians. There was a contradiction, a kind of schizophrenia, here, but I could see that it was endemic to the culture. Outside, on the pedestrianised Jirón de la Unión, they offered you internet space and dollars and even drugs, baggies of marijuana that they attempted to palm into your hand. Their eyes flickered over our cameras and North Face fleeces; their faces were weirdly immobile even as their mouths were moving. Stephen was in his element. He had insisted that we do this, even while Carlos was attempting to dissuade us, and now he gleefully engaged with everybody that approached him. Just now, someone was showing him a watch. He peered down at it, a chunky, lurid fake, and said,

“Coo, fucking hell. You sheeny. Oi: Duncan. Look at this.”

He had draped it over his fingers, like a market trader. Was he a market trader?

“He might as well mug me now and have done with it.”

He put his face into the other man’s face and spoke loudly and slowly.

“'Cos that’s exactly what you want to do.”

He bared his teeth.


This was banter, but barely. In any case, the man refused to be drawn, walking backwards even as Stephen was talking to him. He had already dragged us to the Museo de la Inquisiciôn, whose vaulted basement was a sort of negative of the arches in the Cathedral. We had passed waxworks of men stretched on the rack or having their bare feet roasted at a fire. Stephen had hunched his back and lolled his tongue just as, now, he lowered his shoulders, lengthening his arms and swinging them back and forth. It was a comment on the men who lined the route – on the fact that their faces looked exactly like the pots and grimacing figurines in the earlier museum; that, as far as Stephen was concerned, they didn’t seem to have evolved. What was curious was the way that Stephen didn’t mind Carlos seeing this. In fact, he seemed eager to co-opt him – to check that he was properly appreciative. Carlos laughed uneasily. As soon as he could, he ushered us into a café.

“Lunch,” he said. “Please.”

The “please” was meant to be polite, an extension of the way that he was holding the door open, but, in the context of what had occurred, it took on an urgency, even a sort of pathos. He was being careful not to look at Stephen, who was sauntering, arms swinging, up to a table next to the window. His wife, the girls and the other couple had all gathered around him. The tables were fixed to the floor and Carlos, Susan and I had to sit at a table next to them. There was a moment of readjustment. Out there were the scowling hawkers, exotic in their lineaments and in the way that they hampered the passers-by. In here, it was just like home, with a counter backed by pictures of chips and burgers, linoleum on the floor and something lumbering and lachrymose, somebody murdering “Mandy”, on the sound system. Stephen had drawn a smiley face on the misted-over glass. He said,

“So you a history teacher too?”

This, I belatedly realised, was addressed to me. I found myself sitting upright, eagerly, and saying,

“God, no. No, not at all. An amateur. I read history books, that’s all.”

I saw, even as I was saying it, that I was trying to disassociate myself from David. Feeling ashamed, I went to say something else but Stephen was saying,

“But this bloke. This...”


He nodded.

“A hero, right? Like wotsit. ‘Gladiator’. You know: tasty.”

He had lifted his fists. I bent my head a little to one side. I was about to give a measured, judicious response – I would have enjoyed that. But Stephen said,

“Fuck, if it was me.”

And we were off. There were snorts and giggles. He stuck his chest out but it wasn’t clear, at this stage, whether he was meant to be Pizzarro or the person that he was threatening.

“Heap big trouble,” he said. “You calm down, mister. Me sell you many wristwatch.”

His accent was a cross between Red Indian and Pakistani. Diane shrieked. Mia and Jess were leaning on each other’s shoulders. Susan, I noticed, was looking down at her coke. Outside, we both lagged behind a little. She turned to face me.

“What do you do?”

After Stephen’s raucous parody, her voice seemed pleasantly mild. There was a steadiness about her – a heightened sense of calm that seemed to extend to everything she did: the way she lifted up her drink, for example, or carefully tucked away a wisp of hair. You could tell that her face had declined from an initial beauty that was still faintly there, in ghost-form. It was like the phantom picture on an old television in that her features kept advancing and retreating. Her chin tightened satisfactorily when she lifted her head. Her mouth, in repose, still had a certain plumpness. I scratched my neck.

“Actually, it’s embarrassing. I’m, um, I’m a proofreader. I look over legal documents, for grammar.”

“And that’s embarrassing because?”

“It’s embarrassing because it’s dull.”

She smiled. Ahead of us, Stephen was buying Mia and Jess something. He had his arm around the vendor and seemed to be crooning into his ear. She said,

“There’s nothing wrong with dull.”

I said, comically hopeful,

“You too?”

“Oh, yes. I’m a hausfrau. I spend a lot of time polishing ornaments. I look at old insurance policies and try to work out how much I’m worth.”

She chuckled.

“‘Dull’’s a tad inadequate for what I do. I’ve grown rather to love my insurance policies.”

“It’s all history,” I said. “Even insurance policies.”

She lowered her head to one side.

“‘History’,” she said.

She was savouring the word, tilting her head so that it looked as though she were actually tasting it.

“I like it. It makes me sound imposing.”

“Well, we do seem to have scared everybody off.”

It was true: they were a long way ahead of us now. There had been a certain amount of calculation in that “we”. I was aware that we couldn’t scare Stephen if we tried but it had been an attempt at bravado – a way of creating a gang of our own. Susan said,

“My husband used to say that to me. He said that my good manners were merely part of my armoury.”

I found that I was scratching my neck again.

“And he’s…”

“He’s gone.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. He didn’t die. He absconded.”

There was some humour to be gleaned from that last word. She had made it sound deliberately ridiculous; it mimicked her husband in some way. She said,

“With a hairdresser.”

She exhaled air, rapidly, out of her nostrils. This, I saw, was meant to represent a laugh. I wasn’t sure whether I should smile or laugh in return. She said,

“It’s been a while. This is my first holiday without him. This. All this.”

She made a sweeping motion with her right hand. It took in the Jirón de la Unión, its bland, pragmatic cafés and shoeshops, as well as the men lining the route and the clouds above us – the grey uniformity of the sky.

“Is my reward.”

She swept her arm around her now.

“Peru,” she said.

There was no sense of irony: her smile and the gusto of the gesture told you that she was determined to enjoy herself. Perhaps there was an element of conscious bravery but that was all. She smiled and took my arm. I felt that she was reluctant to catch up with the others; that part of the point of holding onto me was to regulate my speed. For all of her gusto, I imagined, she still felt removed from the gusto around her.

Nevertheless, they had stopped and were waiting for us to catch up with them. Stephen was holding something in his hands. He proffered it to us as we approached: a bundle that, on inspection, proved to be two scarves. They were a dull cream and there was a repeating pattern of llamas – anthropomorphic creatures with bulging, incredulous eyes and beards. I saw that he was wearing one and, then, looking around, that they were all wearing them. Somewhat in the manner of a Hawaiian host, he hung them on our necks. He straightened mine and I found that his grip was slightly frightening. He tugged down sharply, making sure that the ends were equal in length.

“Lima Two-thousand and Three,” he said.

I bowed, mock-solemnly. Carlos, I saw, had knotted his. He stood, part of the group, awaiting orders. Stephen said,

“The minibus?”

Carlos pointed. We were on the edge of the Plaza de Armas and saw that Ernesto had parked beside the central section. He was standing, smoking a cigarillo, beside the opened door of the bus. I followed the smoke down to his hands, huge fighters’ fists with knuckles that were both notched and scarred. His only acknowledgement was to swiftly discard the cigarillo and clamber up into the driver’s seat. Beyond him, I could see somebody begging at the lights. He was gaunt and bare-chested, a hopping, dancing figure in ragged trousers who seemed to be gulping and then vomiting flame, but the drivers were all ignoring him. He was unremarkable in this environment – one more preternaturally vivid vagrant in a city that was full of them.

In the bus, Stephen started a sing-song. There was a tiny house and a tiny stream, as well as a lovely dreaming girl. There was some difficulty in getting to grips with the chorus, which consisted of “Gilly gilly ossenfeffer katseneller bogen by the sea”, but, by the third repetition, we had all mastered it. Stephen, I realised, was the happiest that I had seen him. He had insulated himself from his environment – had, as far as he could, created his own environment. Outside, there was the crush, the noise and the stench, as well as the sense that you were inimical, somehow, whether because of historical circumstance or of something inbred – something that meant that you were at odds with everything around you. We all felt this, I think. And, honestly, at that moment I felt a certain regard for Stephen. There was something like the spirit of the Blitz among us. He conducted us through renditions of “Que Sera Sera” and “Consider Yourself”, as well as the theme from The Dambusters. He was confident of his position now, safe from all other contenders, and he allowed himself to toy with us – to parody, and thereby make explicit, his own self-satisfaction. He grinned, waggling his head from side to side. He raised his hands above his head, fluttering his fingers, then brought them down swiftly, a cartoon movement that was accompanied by a conductor’s furious frown. Lima may just as well have been a sequence of painted flats. We passed a woman who waltzed, alone, around a rubbish bin. Her hair was crazed, a halo of greasy tendrils, and her face was grubby and without hope. There were more beggars, small children this time, and a continual growling and bleating from the cars around us. The point was, we were no longer experiencing any of this. It was barely even scenery; it was more like something that was on in your living room while you got on with the business of eating or sleeping or talking on the telephone. Martin slapped me on the back.

“This is wonderful,” he said.

I nodded: it was. But there was someone else, another figure toiling up the hill ahead of us. Even from here, you could see how distanced it was from its surroundings. It was self-protective – hunched over as though it were at bay. It was the cap I recognised. I shouted,


I banged on the window.

“It’s David. Look.”

I wanted to usher him into the bus; to make him safe. Carlos leapt up into the centre of the aisle. I could tell that he wanted to thump Ernesto on the shoulder but that he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. Instead, he spoke rapidly in Spanish, jabbering into his ear. We were all shouting, now, and banging on the windows. We were pulling across the traffic and the noise of the car horns had coalesced, again, into one angry voice. David turned his face towards us and I was struck by the bleakness of his expression. He had his head pulled down into the collar of his fleece, less for warmth, it seemed, than for protection. His cap was pulled over his forehead, like a visor. Instinctively, as the noise increased, he lifted his arm up to protect his face. Stephen had wrestled the door half-open, and, for a moment, I felt the urge to try to stop him. It was like the other urge; the one I’d had last night. It seemed to struggle upwards and then die. Before we had even stopped he had stuck his head out and was shouting,


He was holding on with one arm, swinging like a pirate on the rigging of a ship.

“David! Come here!”

There was nothing, at this stage, to suggest that his intention was anything but protective. Surely all he wanted was to welcome him into the fold. He stepped lightly onto the pavement. Even this lightness had an element of ostentation: if he was still a pirate then he was one out of an early silent film, someone who seemed to tap dance around a castle’s battlements. He was big and blowsy, eating up all of the available air, and I wasn’t surprised when David winced at his approach. He put his arm around David’s shoulder. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but David was shaking his head rapidly from side to side. There was something about Stephen’s face, something implacable, that made me anxious to hear him. I followed Carlos, lowering myself slowly onto the pavement and then standing beside him. He looked, in his anxiety, as though he were washing his hands. Stephen said,

“You have to get back on the horse, old son.”

You could just hear him in the surrounding cacophony. That was what the noise sounded like: like a rearing horse. David looked ready to run away. Stephen’s face belied his words – it had a tightness, a reserve, that put him at a remove from what he was saying. He was holding firmly onto David’s shoulder, refusing to let him go. He said.

“Come on. They’re waiting.”

But still David refused to move. He said,

“I can’t. I’m sorry. Just leave me here, please. I’m not trying to be awkward. I just…”

He shook his head.

“I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“You can.”

“It isn’t possible.”

Stephen’s grip tightened.

“Look, mate. See that? It’s just a bus. They’re just cars. Really: no biggie.”

But David was pulling away from him. He had both hands up, it looked as though he was surrendering, but he wasn’t. His body was insistent – it wouldn’t allow itself to be commandeered. Stephen had a choice: he could either hold on harder, forcing David to stay where he was, or he could let him go. His knuckles, I noticed, were whitening. But what could he do if he managed to restrain him? Pick him up and throw him in the bus? It was already beginning to look like a struggle. He lifted his arms in exasperation.

“Fuck it,” he said. “Forget it.”

David shook his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s the noise. The…”

He slapped the palm of one hand against the back of the other. The proximity, he meant: the other cars circling, like sharks, around the minibus. The preternatural harshness of the noise, like something in a dream; its obscure intent. He started to say something but thought better of it. He turned around and walked away. Carlos went to go after him but Stephen placed a hand on his stomach, restraining him.

“Leave him,” he said.

Carlos looked rapidly from one to the other. David had reached a junction and now he stood stoically at the kerb.

“He’s never going to get across,” I said.

But no-one acknowledged me. Stephen was already climbing up into the bus. He turned to us and said,

“You coming?”

Carlos and I looked at each other. There was a moment of indecision and then we scrambled, eagerly, after him.


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