Tuesday, 11 October 2016


Among my more distinguished friends in the Quebrada del Alvarado was the late writer and diplomat Robert Otaegui Echeverria (1919-2009).

At the time of the military coup (1973) Roberto was head of protocol in the Popular Unity government and a close friend of President Salvador Allende. He can be spotted in a History Channel documentary alighting from an aircraft with Dr Allende at Moscow. While some people might have had trouble guessing that he had ever been left-wing, Roberto kept a photograph of “Salvador” in the hall of his country house. He did not believe, incidentally, the official version, accepted by Allende’s family, that the Marxist doctor had shot himself during the bombardment of the Moneda (the presidential palace in Santiago). Roberto noticed blood stains on the sofa of a “secret room” – evidence that Allende had been murdered.

As an accomplished story-teller and author of historical novels, Roberto was offered a post at a Spanish university but declined to go into exile. Instead, he took himself off to the Quebrada to finish building the stone mansion he had designed himself, running up a black flag on a tower emblazoned with his coat of arms and arming himself with a laser pistol.

A charming man to some and an opportunist to others, Roberto was extremely kind to me despite his dislike for the English. His library, contained antiquarian editions of Sir Walter Scott, “the last English writer of any note.” Ironically, his gentlemanly hospitality and “open” house made me feel less isolated as a foreigner. When I pulled the rope on the old convent bell at “Fairies’ Corner,” it was as though I was back in my parents’ village in Yorkshire calling on our one of our friends in the village.

Slight of stature with a clipped beard and cockily-tilted beret, he was an upper-middle class Chilean, of Basque descent, cultured, lavishly generous and a great conversationalist.

An atheist absolved on his death bed by a Catholic priest when the penitent could no longer remember his sins, Roberto had long believed in fairies and dwarfs hidden on an inaccessible plateau. Hence the name of his house.

I was introduced to this proud, eccentric old man by two of his nine children, Rodrigo and “Pancho” (Francisco), from whose quarry I bought stones for building my own house. They asked me what my wife’s surname was and on hearing it was Echeverria (their grandmother’s name), they invited me for a drink at the castle. Roberto was indeed a distant relative of Loreto’s and affectionately called her “my niece.”

Roberto’s anecdotes were amusing though often repeated. He published some of them in an embellished and fictional form with the title “Diplomatic Tales.” One story, possibly autobiographical, was about a consul in Central America who sold passports and frequently locked himself up in his sweltering bedroom to drink gallons of rum. Roberto won major Chilean and Spanish literary prizes for his work including “Las Indias de Cain,” an historical novel based on the life of the conquistador Diego de Almagro.

Roberto was born in Valparaiso.  His father, a landowner, gambled away the family fortune and Roberto was educated at a state-maintained Catholic school. His nanny “stole” some of the cash his father occasionally won at cards and deposited it in a bank account she’d opened for him. This nest egg came in handy when he chose to study architecture at university but failed to qualify “as I couldn’t count.”

He was in a bar in Santiago shortly after the fall of the left-leaning General Del Campos when a young man challenged the drinkers who were celebrating the dictator’s downfall. They turned on the dissident with anger. Roberto intervened and saved him from a beating. When the General (who, incidentally, founded the paramilitary police of Chile) returned to power, he sent for Roberto. The young man he’d defended in the pub was his son Carlos. Roberto was rewarded with the post of Chilean Consul in Argentina. Sent later to Spain, he met Franco, whom he regarded as intelligent in contrast to the equally brutal General Pinochet, who didn’t mind the jokes told about him until they were explained.

At some stage in his career he founded the Anarchist Party of Chile. He liked to recall one of their songs: Vamos al Vaticano con una bomba en la mano!  (Let’s go to the Vatican with a bomb in our hands!)

Later, I believe, Roberto became a National Socialist and was close to the late Nazi leader in Chile, Miguel Serrano, a diplomatic chum who had been ambassador in India, also a refined and cultured man. I have reason to think that Roberto was also a Freemason (as was Allende) at some time or another but of course never mentioned it, though his best friend in the Quebrada, “Chuco” who had studied pig-breeding in Hull, was openly on the square.  To digress, as we talkative old people do, I went to Chuco’s burial in his garden when one pious daughter sang “Ave Maria” and the other, a bold horsewoman dubbed “Catherine” because of her low-class lover “Heathcliff” said “Ciao Chuco!” and laughed her beautiful head off.  I received a card from the family saying that Chuco was enjoying his new life “on the mountain with the fairies and dwarfs.”

Perhaps the greatest contribution made by Roberto Otaegui to Chile is that part of his collection of Pre-Columbine Andean antiquities which was acquired by his friend the director of the museum in Santiago. Many of these remarkable pieces from the Maya and Nazca civilizations were on display in “Fairies’ Corner” alongside Spanish tapestries and old masters’. The spacious living-room was a veritable museum itself. Some of the artefacts were robbed from tombs in El Salvador. Roberto sent them home in the diplomatic bag.

For a socialist, Roberto he didn’t have much affection for the common people. In fact he had no inhibitions about calling them “shitty plebs” for being “reactionary” and drove fast through the village, despite having a glass eye, oblivious of – or unaware of - people he ought to have given a lift to.  When stopped by the police, he produced a piece of paper with a Salvadorian letterhead begging the authorities to be cognizant of his legal status of diplomatic immunity. This always did the trick.

He had managed to acquire the mountain where the fairies and dwarfs lived. This had been achieved not by purchase from the community or state but by claiming it as his. This can be done with unregistered land as long as the claim is published three times in the newspaper and no one objects. Twenty other properties in the Quebrada belonged to him. The owners had begged him to buy their plots in order to pay for an urgent operation or settle a debt.  These bits and pieces of real estate were now worth a fortune.

The funds he used to snap up land didn’t come from his modest pension but from a million dollar award he received from the Banco Santander over its embargoing of his Santiago house against the debts of a business partner who named it as collateral without being mentioned in the deeds. It is very unusual for a bank to lose a law suit in Chile (or perhaps anywhere) but Roberto bribed three Supreme Court judges with $50,000. So much for the international image that Chile projects of judicial probity compared to other Latin American countries.

Personally, I benefited from Roberto’s cunning and friends in high places. About ten years after buying “La Ermita” I learned that the Spanish-owned electricity monopoly planned to ruin my view of the chain of mountains behind the house with a number of pylons. This was not only an ecological disaster but would also have lowered the value of the place. I joined a group of protesters and blocked the road with my pick-up, forcing the workers to go home for the day.

The company’s helicopter dropped a couple of men with chain-saws in my wood. When I scrambled up with Rupert my Labrador to challenge them, I was told, “Don’t interfere, you prat” (literally, “big egg”). I gave them a damn good thrashing with my stick. They ran like rabbits, the helicopter circling overhead to rescue them from the maddened gringo. Although Rupert was too good-natured to bite them, his deep bark was enough to put the fear of God up them. I wouldn’t have dared to attack them without him and I only did so out of temper. It’s amazing how a born coward can be brave on his own patch.

One of the pylons was plonked on Roberto’s mountain. He couldn’t even see it from his garden but received the equivalent of $100,000 in compensation. Several peasants who had these health-threatening towers planted metres from their shacks were paid miserable sums, for which they were eternally grateful. The community directorate received a big sum, some of which my English friend Simon (see the post “Son of a Preacher Man”) wanted to set up a gym “to keep youth off the street” but the money disappeared.

An inspection revealed that an electricity cable passed a metre or so inside my wood, though far from the house. I called the company but they denied it. I discussed the matter with Roberto over a lunch at which the chief of the government environmental body was present. They gave me the name of a lawyer in Valparaiso who specialized in Human Rights and he won a settlement of $10,000 for first five years and $10,000 annually thereafter.  I thought I’d landed a pension not to be sniffed at. Nothing happens in Chile when they say it will happen. But Lo and behold, five years later the helicopters appeared again and carried off all the pylons, leaving their concrete bases to scar the “cerro.”

A womanizer in his time, Roberto was still in love with his first wife Alicia. She was a sleep-walker who died of Alzheimer’s at around fifty. His second wife Yvonne was the daughter of a Belgian diplomat and around thirty years his junior. She was an attractive blonde and charming hostess who encouraged my visits because Roberto was bored with his drunken, sponging sons and his only friends lived in Santiago. It seemed Yvonne was bored too. She was caught by a maid in bed with Chuco in the room next to Roberto’s. I think this influenced Roberto’s decision to do nothing to settle his affairs before he died, leaving her at the mercy of his rapacious children.

He was far from the sentimental, doting Chilean father. He considered the two hard-drinking sons who lived nearby “older” than himself. I regularly went to see him when he became ill with cancer, both at his house and a local clinic where he cut a sorry figure, a man once so grand, among the poor he despised while championing their cause politically. In Latin America, as I think in France, politicians belong to one group or another according to their attitude to the Church. The main thing is that they stick together, feather their nests and hate the other side.

He relapsed into a nostalgic interest in palaeontology, spending hours in a wheel-chair studying an encyclopaedia as though mugging up for an exam. The nurse had forgotten to change his socks, so I didn’t want to stay for long. He opened a chest and pulled out a bunch of medals, ribbons and sashes presented to him by such countries as Cuba and Venezuela.
“These will be important mementoes for your children,” I said.
“What children? I don’t have any. These honours must be sent back to where they came from.”
“Surely you have a favourite son or daughter?”
“Yes, but he’s the worst.”

Shortly after this sad remark Roberto was abducted from the house he loved, whisked away by Ricardo and a brother-in-law to a nursing home whose location was concealed from Yvonne.

 I took the train with her to the funeral in Valparaiso. Roberto’s family arrived with the body and the mourners mingled uneasily as the coffin was slid into the family vault in the Catholic cemetery. Roberto had long deliberated on whether to be buried there or in the Dissidents’ cemetery founded by the British Protestants in the nineteenth century. Being of the Masonic persuasion, he ought to have been laid to rest there but he preferred to be with Alicia.

The following day Ricardo threw Yvonne out of the old cottage in the grounds she believed had been put in her name. He threatened her with a revolver and called her a Belgian bitch. He stripped the house of its treasures, accusing Yvonne of illegally selling some pieces. She left to live by a lake in the south of Chile, leaving her claims with a local lawyer who followed the usual practice of working for both parties.

Pancho, the nicer of the two brothers who owned the quarry and a Don Juan who had seduced half the girls of the local town, fell ill with Alzheimer’s. As a callous joke, Ricardo gave him worthless notes from El Salvador to buy pisco at the “Don’t Forget Me” restaurant. He forgot to put his trousers on, his famously gargantuan balls dangling like a bunch of onions.

Pancho went missing one night and was never seen again. Before his own death, Chuco claimed Pancho had been got out of the way by the other members of the family, who thought his incapacity would hold up probate.

Police combed the Quebrada with tracker dogs which had been used by Chilean forces in the Haiti earthquake. Simon denounced the plotters to the carabineros major in Limache but the case was never solved.  Ricardo died a couple of years later after his wife, a rich Bolivian, went back to her country. Although I suspected he was a fratricide, I greeted him at the supermarket, telling him that Roberto’s friendship had meant a lot to me. I’m not sure why I spoke to him. It was perhaps a way of honouring his father. He thanked me for chanting “Kyrie eleison” at the burial, which I did at the request of Yvonne.

“Fairies’ Corner” is boarded up and going to rack and ruin. Plans for turning the house into an exclusive mental home have not been realized.

Sunday, 2 October 2016


Some people are bound to say that my writing about Simon is a betrayal of his friendship. Yet he asked me to, on his deathbed.  He himself suggested the title of this reluctantly-penned obituary.
We were introduced in the country house of a Chilean writer and former diplomat close to the Marxist president Salvador Allende. This was incongruous because Simon hated “Communists” and was in conflict with our host over a path to the latter’s land through Simon’s smallholding. But Roberto wanted me to meet the other “gringo” living in the district. He had learned to live with lawsuits and usually won them.
It wasn’t difficult to guess that Simon was an ex-convict. He was powerfully- built, with a shaved bullet head, square jaw, flattened nose and tiny cold blue eyes in a blotchy, prematurely-lined face.
He’d brought along a family tree traced by his father, an Anglican priest. Among his ancestors were enough vicars and colonels to fill a street in Colchester and a highwayman who was hanged at Tyburn in the seventeenth century. The profession of the current black sheep of the family was listed as “physical fitness.”
Over the years we were to learn everything about each other.  We had more in common than met the eye.
Simon was born in Brazil, where his parents were missionaries. He played football with his black neighbours and ran wild without shoes. At the age of eight, he was buggered by a gang of white youths. At ten, he was sent to one of those boarding schools in England which take sons of the clergy at a discount. He detested the climate and was caned “every single day” for disobedience and insolence. The matron regularly dragged him out of his bed in the middle of the night and took turns with the music mistress to sit on his penis in the “san.” He was expelled from three schools, the last one for “it.” The prettier boys seemed like girls to the bulky boy from South America.
Simon was the second of three brothers. The younger one became their father’s curate in Valparaiso but was struck dead by God in church after praying for release from his unnatural desires. The older one, whom Simon loathed, trained to be a teacher.
Simon admired his father but could emulate him only in the matter of religious faith. The low-church minister had qualified as a scientist at Cambridge but took the cloth after the Second World War.
“Everyone in the forces had their I.Q.s tested and my father came out as the second most intelligent person in the RAF. He trained pilots but was never sent on a mission himself. That was because of his brains. They didn’t want to waste them. But he knew nearly everyone he trained was going to die. That was made him accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour.”
Simon hadn’t set not set eyes on his parents since they dumped him on a small farm twenty years ago. He received a small allowance his parents had somehow obtained from the Church Commissioners.
“I’m not academic. I’ve read only three books in my life: the Bible, Zane Grey – about the Wild West, I don’t remember the title – and the Late, Great Planet Earth.” The latter work by the American Christian Zionist Hal Lindsey analyses global conflict in the light of Holy Scriptures.
Proud as he was of his British nationality, Simon had gone seriously native. His Spanish was fluent and full of hackneyed vernacular expressions. He always wore some item of riding gear: boots complete with enormous spinning rowels; leather gaiters to protect the legs from thorny trees; a black jacket, short like a waistcoat, which he had had cut from an old suit of his father’s; a poncho and a wide-brimmed stiff velvet hat which he never removed, even when it hindered my vision while driving. He carried a brush in his pocket to keep the shine on his boots. Round his neck hung a silver cross big enough for a bishop.
Mounted on his black stallion “Pirate” and armed with an automatic pistol displayed in a holster, Simon was the epitome of the macho. The horse’s name alluded to the English sailors like Drake who terrorized the coasts of Chile and Peru. Only Pirate’s owner could ride him.
Simon was as proud of his criminal record as he was of his faith.
“My brothers went to university while I went to jail. Manchester. I joined the Quality Street Gang. We used to set up phoney drug deals by pretending to be foreigners wanting to sell to the local mafia. The handovers were made in a public lavatory. I came up behind the buyer and slammed him into the wall while he was slashing. I stripped him of wads of notes stashed in his leather greatcoat.”
“You must have made a lot of money.”
“Fifty thousand quid one day. Blew my slice on a Daimler Dart. Primrose yellow.”
His ten- year sentence for armed robbery of a casino was reduced to five after a visit to Durham Prison by a bishop who kissed him on the lips. “I told my father. The bishop was his boss. Silly old woman he said.”
Simon was married to an English bisexual who shared her female lovers with him. She left him while he was inside, taking their three children with her. He never saw them again or learned of their whereabouts.
“I’ve been deported. Like to Australia. Pinochet was in power, so it was stable. My father had a high regard for him. This country needs a firm hand. There was more respect in those days, less crime. I want to see my father when I sell a piece of land and can buy an air ticket. I don’t care about my mother but I regret calling her a poisonous Welsh dwarf. It was when I was chopping onions in the kitchen and she screamed Mac, Simon’s got a knife. My parents had lodgers who lived with us as though they were part of the family. My mother gave my room to someone who was studying for an exam. I had to sleep in a broom cupboard. These lodgers called my parents Mum and Dad. It made me sick.”
Simon spent much of his time in the brothels of Valparaiso, where he spread the Gospel as well as the girls’legs. He lamented his taste for sodomy as it was condemned in the Old Testament.  Nevertheless, he claimed the women didn’t mind.
“Don’t let those do-gooders tell you they don’t like it. They love it! They’re worse than me. God loves them just the same, like Mary Magdalene. They’re family.”
He made friends with beggars, thieves and drug pushers “just as Christ did.”
Meanwhile he neglected to water the fruit trees on his smallholding, which went to rack and ruin. The peasants called him “little gringo,” which is not an insult in Chile, but he took it badly and responded by calling them “little Chileans.” They cut his water pipes, threw tarantulas through his windows and poisoned his dog. But they didn’t dare go near his horse. He told the police he was going to start a war. The threat of “an international situation” worked. When peace temporarily returned to the Quebrada with the intervention of Her Majesty’s Consul (a friend of the family), Simon magnanimously provided his neighbours with water from his exceptionally deep well.
Simon became popular and with his habits and attitudes blended into the community. His natural politeness adapted to the curiously formal ways of the country folk. The familiar “tu” wasn’t in his vocabulary, not even when addressing his Chilean wife. He thought frequent washing was effeminate and that my green sweater was a woman’s colour. A man should wear navy blue, black or grey. He never exposed his body to the sun, struck matches towards himself, sat with his legs wide apart on the bus as though the size of his balls prevented him from closing them, and greeted everyone with a hand like a vice.
Although he never attended church services of any persuasion, he dressed up on Sundays, plucking the white hairs out of his moustache and shaving his head without soap. He wore a white shirt fastened with a gold collar stud, sharply pressed black trousers, a bomber jacket in winter and one of his expensive hats with an owl’s feather “for luck.” He swayed and staggered in heels made to stay in stirrups rather than for walking on the ground.
Simon suffered from an extreme type of bipolar disorder but had never been diagnosed.  He couldn’t bear to be alone. This prevented him from working on his farm because he couldn’t afford paid help. He spent days away from his property, dossing on the floor in some friend’s house or in a brothel. On his birthday, the whores dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood and were conveyed around the port by taxis pipping their horns.
 My best friend wasn’t one of those men who think it shameful to pay for sex, but it was bankrupting him. The solution came when he was out riding and came across Teresa, one of his “girlfriends,” busty lass with red hair and green eyes – the “daughter of a tourist.” She was waiting by the side of the road with a suitcase after being sacked for slapping a customer who tried to kiss her – a privilege only Simon enjoyed.
He invited her to stay with him.  Needless to say, it was a busman’s holiday. He strapped the suitcase to Pirate’s rump, threw Teresa over the withers and galloped home like a knight with a damsel in distress.
His relationship with Teresa did not improve his image in the community. The police were called when they put all their clothes into the washing machine and ran around naked until their laundry was dried. There were fights in the “Forget Me Not” restaurant when a bunch of cowboys called her a “puta.” Simon challenged them to come outside: “seven against two.”  The battle was well under way with Teresa punching and spitting and Simon head-butting and smashing teeth with his homemade knuckleduster when the police arrived on their regular patrol to demand a free bottle of pisco from the bar. Teresa jumped onto the bonnet of the police car and kicked the headlights in.
Simon eventually decided to put down roots and marry a local girl. Teresa was packed off back to work in the port. He’d had his eye on the butcher’s daughter for some time, a dark-skinned beauty half his age. She laughed with scorn when he banged on her door with his knuckleduster and announced that he intended to marry her.
“I’ve got a boyfriend. Don’t waste your time.”
“Be patient. He’ll go away sooner or later. You need a real man, not a poodle like him.”
“My dad’s got a shotgun. You’d better be off.”
A year later, decked out in a frilly white frock and yellow socks, Carmen walked down the aisle with her “gringito” in his sparkling boots with whirling spurs.
“It was a Catholic wedding. That’s how they like it. I’d no objection. I’m married in the eyes of God. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need priests.  But I like to conform.”
They were married for only a few years but those were the happiest Simon had known. His wife worked as a dental mechanic in Viña del Mar, around half an hour by train from the local town of Limache. He provided the property they lived on and she took care of the cash.
After bouts of heavy drinking he got up at dawn and ran ten miles on tarmacked roads. “I’d die if I didn’t do it. Discipline. That’s the secret.”
Around seven in the evening Simon left his drinking chums and dutifully caught a bus to the railway station to accompany his wife back to the Quebrada and carry the shopping. He brought his pistol – for which he had somehow obtained a licence - “in case someone tries to rape her.”  Carmen cooked the evening meal and cleaned the house at the weekends.
“Not every weekend. She’s bone idle. She wants me to take her to England. Not much use when she can’t be bothered to learn a word of English.”
He complained that she was no good in bed. “As limp as a rag doll” but he liked the fact that she was “furry” and forbade her to shave her legs above the knee. A strand of thick black hair crept along the length of her spine “like an animal.”
Actually, Carmen was a clean country girl. I wondered how she could put up with her husband’s smell. Nor my cat, who always slept on his knee as we talked. He took care over his appearance but his breath was foul from cheap wine and cigarettes. He’d smoked since he was twelve. His trousers were stiff with his sweat and that of his horse. Thankfully, he never took his boots off in my presence.
Ten years younger than me, he used the spicy idioms of my father’s generation and talked about how life was in the trenches as though he’d been in the war. Being with him was like standing in the bar of an English pub at a time when women were relegated to the lounge or “snug.” His friendship meant we could talk real, native English. It was an escape from Chile, where I’d been stranded for so long, to use expressions like “dressing down the maid” or speak of a “snag” in the hose-pipe. I cannot imagine getting through those years without his company.
Often I let him down, refusing to leave my fireside in the rain to bring him a demi-john of wine for his homeless friends who were sleeping three to a bed in his house for the night. We clashed over politics, religion and my siding with Prince Charles over his divorce.
We watched the BBC news, Simon talking all the time as he couldn’t concentrate for more than thirty seconds. In any case, the wars, plagues and natural disasters were all in the Bible.
“You should read Hal Lindsey, Nicholas. The Late Great Planet Earth.”
“Yes, Simon, the only book you read in prison.”
“He’s got it all worked out from the Bible. Christ will come again and the Jews will be converted. All of them will go back to Israel, from England, France, America, wherever they are. Many will walk. Already they’re building shoe factories along the route. The stiff-necked among them will be destroyed. Christ will then rule the world for a thousand years no matter what the United Nations says.”
He lugged a tree stump in to put on the fire and mixed cigarette tobacco with marijuana in his pipe.  The silver lid was recycled from a napkin ring given at his christening with his initials on it.
“I’ve decided to go in for politics,” he announced. “I’m going to run for mayor of Olmue.” The municipal area which included the Quebrada.
 I decided to humour him. At times his gangsterish temper frightened me.
“How do you mean, Simon? You don’t belong to a political party, do you?”
“No, that’s the point. I want to clean up politics by getting rid of all the parties, finish with their backhanders and jobs for the boys. The Chileans are just a veneer. That’s what my mother always said. Thieves and liars. That’s what my father thinks. We British should set an example. Chile would never have got rid of the Spanish without help from Lord Cochrane. I’m serious about this. I have all voters in the Quebrada behind me. The “Forget Me Not” owner will back me. She treats me like her son.”
“I thought you were in debt to Angelita.”
“I am but I always pay up. I’ll send a lot of custom her way if I win.”
“You have to have a programme, some policies?”
“I do have one but it’s not political. I’m not political.  Like Pinochet. He lasted for twenty years because everyone was scared shitless of him. I’ll be the same when I get in. The only thing I believe in is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I’ve been collecting signatures to back my campaign. The young people are behind me. I’m going to clean up the Quebrada of drugs and put some law and order into the place. We need a gym to keep youth off the streets. I’ll run it myself."
“How can you be the mayor or even a councillor if you can’t read and write Spanish?”
“All I have to do is sign where they tell me. That’s what the clerks are for.”
“Surely you have to be a Chilean citizen to stand for election?”
 “They told me in Valparaiso I’d have to be Chileanized for five years before I can stand for mayor but I won’t renounce my British passport. They respect me for who I am. They want me, they say I can stand. Go ahead, Don Simonito. We’re behind you. The Quebrada is going to the dogs. The people are fed up with politics. They were better off under the army. The problem was that they became corrupt and got political. I’m going to put a stop to the squabbling among the political parties and do what the people want for a change. They will have their say!”
He brought down his fist on the table like a steak hammer and held it aloft defiantly as though clutching a gigantic egg he was about to throw at the semi-literate fox who had been mayor of Olmue for as long as anyone could remember.
“What does Carmen think of your political ambitions?”
“What do I care what she thinks! I wear the trousers in our house but you wouldn’t think so at times. She’s started to wear them herself. That really annoys me. She knows I like to see her in a dress. She’s acting like a feminist. The Bible says the man should rule the roost, not the woman. She likes to belittle me. She’s always nagging me about going to England. I want to go when we have kids, grandchildren to show off to my parents. If we haven’t had children it’s not my fault. There’s nothing wrong with my sperm count! She’s having tests now. She wants me to go too but I won’t have any doctor fiddling with my balls. I can have children. That’s clear. It’s her fault we can’t produce any unless Pirate’s knackered me. I’ve ridden bareback too much.”
It was common knowledge that Simon beat his wife. At the risk of being attacked myself, I tackled him about it.
“I’ve never clouted her, Nicholas. Believe you me. That’s a lie her family are putting around. They want us to separate so she’ll get half my farm. They won’t get their hands of my farm. It’s my inheritance. Only once I grabbed her wrist and gave her a crack with the back of my hand, just once, like I do with my dog on the snout. She went quiet as a mouse. It’s the only way to shut them up.”
Carmen went back to her parents’. A divorce law had only just come into force and she made use of it without delay. Simon went rapidly downhill but succeeded in keeping his property intact. He divided his land into lots and began to sell them one by one. The proceeds were blown on all-night parties with busloads of whores and drug-crazed Andean street musicians. He lost the rest of his capital on imaginary business schemes invented by fraudsters who stripped him of every peso, leaving him to face the creditors. But, “like Christ,” he never bore them a grudge and wanted to give them all “a second chance.”
 Simon rented and did up a “town house” in the village. Like the stage set of a Beckett play, it was furnished with a few plastic chairs, a huge bed to which he retired early with his boots on as his companions went on with the party, throwing their empty beer cans into an oil drum. When the restorations were completed, the owner cut off the electricity to get him out. Simon was consuming large amounts of cocaine and kept an iron bar in a corner for self-defence.
Not all his enemies were a figment of his paranoia. One dark night a masked cowboy galloped up and dealt him a blow with a lead pipe. He was taken to hospital with a fractured skull but survived. He knew who his attacker was but the man wasn’t detained. He asked me to drive him to Santiago to talk to “my ambassador.”  He carried his blood-soaked coat in a supermarket bag but was obliged to leave it with reception and was fobbed off by a junior official.
I wanted to help Simon but he became unbearable. I’d heard his anecdotes and opinions time and time again. Nevertheless, he was a friend I could talk to about my private life in a way I couldn’t to a priest or psychiatrist.  It was the same with him.
One Christmas he came round severely depressed. He’d not eaten for three days and was wearing two pairs of trousers to hide his loss of weight. Out of tobacco, he sucked on his pipe like a dummy. He’d spent days sitting on the steps on his house with his head in his hands, his teeth ground down with nerves.  He was ready to “top” himself. He’d sold Pirate years ago and the neighbours had broken into his house and stolen his English saddle as well his pistol, which had saved him from ending his life there and then. I dissuaded him from the lingering agony of an amateur hanging. He agreed not to die like Judas.
He spent several days with me, sleeping in my study, reminiscing as usual about his past. He smoked endless cigarettes outside the kitchen door as I boiled the potatoes and grilled steaks on the fire. Despite his state of undernourishment, he refused my organic produce: he hadn’t touched fruit and vegetables for years and didn’t intend to start now. He left feeling positive about his plan to turn his property into a retirement home for Evangelical Christians called “Camp David” after his favourite brother.
A few months later he returned like a stray dog with the alarming news that he’d been experiencing an excruciating pain in his anus “like someone twisting a pair of pliers in there.” I made an appointment for him to see a specialist in Viña. The elderly doctor was tall with long fingers which made Simon scream behind the screen.  While the patient was pulling up his trousers the doctor made a callous gesture indicating that the case was hopeless.  Simon had a tumour the size of a mushroom. Advanced cancer of the rectum was confirmed by tests.
I’d predicted such a fate ten years ago, done my best to warn him. But Simon, who was 47 at the time, replied that he didn’t intend to change his “way of life” nor did he desire to live beyond 60 and become an old man incapable of enjoying himself.
“Don’t write me off, Nicholas. I’m not going to behave like a condemned man.  I’m not going round with a bag of shit under my shirt. It would show in the gym. Anyway, so what if I die. The world’s coming to an end, so I won’t miss it.”
Demonstrating that despite owning around 20 acres of land he was a pauper, Simon got onto the national health system and underwent a nine-hour operation during which he was fitted with a colostomic bag.
The marathon operation appeared to have been a success but he caught some bug and went into intensive care. He asked to see only me and his ex-mother-in-law, though not her daughter. On the Saturday before Easter Sunday we were told he probably wouldn’t survive the night. I’d sent my black suit and tie to the cleaners but in vain: he resurrected like his Lord and Saviour on Easter Day and was soon back in the ward, complaining about the no-smoking rules and threatening to smash the skull of a patient moaning in the next bed.
Simon developed a voracious appetite for yoghurts – something he’d always despised – and said it was time to “take up my bed and walk.”  The doctors told him not to be silly: he wouldn’t get as far as the door without collapsing. When their backs were turned, he discharged himself, stopping off for a drink in his favourite bar before going home.
Throughout the two years of life left to him on this earth, Simon continued to chain-smoke, drink a bottle of wine a day, eat “blue” steaks with no veg and abstain from fruit. He turned up for chemo-therapy straight from the brothel stinking of beer and cigarettes.  For him, “chemo” was a cocktail.
“I’m enjoying prolonging this!”
Knowing that he could die in the street at any moment, I tried to persuade him to make a will. He didn’t reject the idea in principle but it wasn’t a priority as he expected to live for many years to come.  
His tolerance to pain was exceptionally high. He took no pain-killers for over a year, preferring to “get to know the pain slowly. He’s like a friend whose hands are all over my body. It’s strange but I don’t mind him.” Inexplicably, he no longer smelled, as though the suffering was purifying him.
He continued to talk about his plans for “Camp David.” He wanted to set up a trust which would bring his friends the seamen of Valparaiso together with the peasants of the Quebrada and offer half-price accommodation to “doctors, nurses, prostitutes and lady scouts.”  He looked forward to seeing his brother David in heaven.
He asked me to write letters to his ancient parents. They’d asked their parish in England to pray for their wayward son during one of his crises in hospital. When their prayers were answered, he asked them to increase his allowance to pay for his binges in “Valpo.”
His missionary work went on to the end. He told a Somalian sailor, “You worship Ali or whatever he’s called. I worship Jehovah. I want to hear your side of the story.”
I’d already read him the “visitation of the sick” from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. I expected it would move him to tears as it did me. Unrepentant, he said, “I’ve had a good life.”
Now he was on morphine drops and powerful sleeping pills which were destroying his short-term memory but he vividly recalled incidents in his past. “I wanted to have hands laid on me but instead of the pastor, his wife came at me. I don’t approve of women in the Church, so I ducked. I shouted No! But the Holy Spirit wouldn’t be put off. He bowled me over like a gust of wind.”
As the end approached, he asked to see his ex-wife.
“I never asked to be divorced. I’ve never fornicated since we separated. I’ve been in bed with women but I’ve kept my underpants on. Man cannot put asunder what God has joined. I’m still her husband.”
I told him that if he didn’t make a will his estate would go to his parents and shortly after to Mark, his elder brother. He hated Mark so much that he couldn’t bring himself to read the Gospel according to the same. To avoid legal problems, his ex-mother-in-law arranged for him to sell his property to her for a song so that he would die without a bean.  He told her which of the plots was to go to Carmen. It was a neat little arrangement with something of biblical wisdom in it.
By this stage his suffering couldn’t be disguised despite his resolve to be “joyful unto the end.” Out of curiosity I asked him if he would consider taking an overdose of sleeping pills. He gave me an accusatory stare. “God would be disappointed with me.”
I felt ashamed. He never complained about his pain. Instead, he asked how my ailing cat was and told me it was good to hear my voice. With the cancer spread throughout his guts, the end was nigh. The Welsh Dwarf, an ex-military nurse, told me coolly over the telephone, “In these cases the patient has little time.”
“The Cross will save me,” Simon said with Evangelical zeal. “I’m leaving mine to you - and my pipe. Smoke it. It’s good for you.”
Shortly after receiving this advice, I left for a holiday in Europe. I rang Simon often. About two weeks before he died, he asked me to remind him of the date of my return flight to Chile. He died the very hour I landed at Santiago.
I was sleeping off the jet lag when the British Consul rang me, just two hours before the funeral was due to commence in the little wooden Anglican church in Viña del Mar.
A pair of gleaming spurs lay on the coffin.
One hymn (“All the Saints”) had been stipulated by his father – two verses at the beginning of the service and two at the end. But, as requested by Simon many years before his illness, I sang “The Lord’s My Shepherd” to the organ music of “Crimond” and gave a little oration in Spanish, mentioning my best friend’s unfaltering faith in Christ, generosity, bravery, frankness and kindness to animals.
Perhaps I should have left it at that. But, as I’ve already said, Simon asked me to write about him. Now that duty has been discharged, I will never again laugh about him behind his back.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016


Prospero is dying. I’m not going to visit him in hospital, where doctors are marginally extending his natural lifespan, but I’ll have to go to the funeral. Mrs Morris and the whole tribe of them will be offended if I don’t. The younger ones are giving blood by the bucket. He will pass over to the other side with or without their red or white cells.  

Don Prospero was the caretaker of “La Ermita,” my smallholding between Santiago and Valparaiso. I called it The Hermitage because I wanted to live there alone, almost like a monk.
The 15 acres form part of El Venado (“The Deer”), a large farm acquired towards the end of the nineteenth century by the grandfather of Don Prospero’s wife.

Mrs Morris keeps her surname as do all the married women in Chile. I’d better explain about this “Don” nonsense. The “courtesy title” was used by the aristocracy in the past but has been adopted by every adult male rather like the French “Monsieur.” Another polite way of addressing any man is to call him “knight” – a quaint countryside custom. I called Prospero Don because he was older than me and he called me Don because I was his “patron.”

Mr Morris was an Englishman who disembarked at Valparaiso to seek his fortune in Chile. He owned a troop of mules which transported charcoal over the mountains to the mining town of Tiltil. A disciplinarian who kept his saddle room shipshape, he was intolerant of the shoddy habits of his Chilean workers, Mrs Morris showed me a retouched photograph of her ancestor. His moustache was dark blue and his skin a vivid pink.

Occupation by defaulting tenants whose plots were subsequently legalized by land reform reduced the Morris farm to a smaller holding than mine. The family sunk to the level of illiterate peasantry. Understandably, they were staunchly right-wing during the dictatorship of General Pinochet (1973-90) – imposed ostensibly to stem the tide of Cuba-backed Communism.

El Venado, where I have never spotted a stag or even its tiny mouse-like cousin the Puyu, is part of the agricultural community of Quebrada del Alvarado. Quebrada means ravine or gorge, somewhere where the land has been “broken” by the forces of nature. It is fenced in by mountains and criss-crossed by gullies and streams.

Granite stones used for grinding gold known as “moyas” are evidence that the region was occupied by Mapuche Indians (particularly the Pinquinches) who migrated from the south centuries before the Spanish General Alvarado fled to this isolated region after his defeat by the Patriotic forces in the war of independence (1820).

Little is known of the General apart from his procreativity. Alvarado is a common name among the locals, descendants of him and his soldiers who “crossed” with the indigenous women. The resulting mixture is sometimes called the Chilean race, though the entire bourgeoisie are European.
The small indigenous minority, however, have become more active in asserting their own identity. On 12th October, Dia de la Hispanidad, which they view as a glorification of the Spanish conquest, they protest by banging drums and making a dull and tuneless music with bamboo flutes. Most Chileans would never admit to having Indian blood, even though 80% or more do. Thousands have changed their surnames to Spanish ones to avoid racial discrimination.

Chileans I'm afraid to say are generally indirect and wishy-washy but Mrs Morris has inherited the frankness of her English forebears and readily admits, “We are a mixture and a bad one at that.”

Back in the days when I still had a bit of money to my name, Don Prospero – a dignified man whose straight black hair jotted out from his forehead like the brush on a vacuum cleaner - would doff his straw hat with feudal panache as he crossed the stream on the bridge dividing our properties. Not that he was servile. He nurtured a patriarchal pride together with the incongruous wish to be “patronized." I was considerably out of pocket in keeping up my position by installing a bathroom for him, giving presents to his family (for which I was never thanked according to peasant etiquette) and topping up his pension with gaps left his former, dead employers. The likes of Prospero had even at that time died out. He was a throwback to the days of a mild form of serfdom which existed in Chile up to the first half of the twentieth century. He didn’t count his hours of work and thought of La Ermita as an extension of his own land. 

The day I took possession of my place Prospero set the style he was to follow for the next seventeen years. Pointing out a peach tree near the house, he declared, “This is called La Purisima because the fruit is always ripe on the 8th December.” The feast day of the Immaculate Conception. “These peaches are exclusively yours. Only you may pick them.” Having worked for absentee owners, he was used to “sharing” the produce as a natural right and I did nothing to end this tradition. 

It was autumn when I moved in. Butterflies were weakly settling on the heavily-scented purple buddleia and the tiny red and yellow clusters of the lantana bushes. The stream was low enough after several years of drought to drive over. At the end of a winding drive was a modest house joined onto the white-washed adobe outhouses which had been the original dwelling. Thick twisted vines like ancient olive trees lined the flagstone terrace, their woody pruned shoots pointing upwards like dead fingers. The last owner, a Mr Nettle, had rarely visited his holiday home but never failed to claim his share of the “chicha”, a grape cider Prospero made.

Noting my delight at the swarms of black swallowtails, cabbage whites and  tiny Red Admirals, Prospero remarked that they liked the privacy of the place. He meant it was sheltered from the wind.
A grasp of the misuse of Spanish is essential for living in the Chilean countryside. Prospero was a master of malapropism, calling the circumference of the well its conference and substituting “incests” for insects. Once he didn’t turn up for work because he was getting a jab “against the influence,” a measure which would “enforce the third age.”

Not wishing to appear ignorant, I asked some questions about the drainage and sewer. There was no sanitary system, just a “black hole” periodically filled with limestone.
“So near to the house?”
“Don Hugo,” replied Prospero, referring to his former employer with an officious air, “made very little excrement.”

Despite the difficulty of emulating my predecessor, Prospero and I were to warm to each other. He was my only close neighbour, protected me from theft through his standing in the community, taught me how to grow vegetables, fed my pets when I was away and handled the dangerous donkeys which carried timber down from the wood. Without Prospero life would have been impossible though it entailed social obligations I could have done without. But through this friendly contact I got to know a rural culture which the weekenders from Santiago failed to penetrate.

Prospero and Mrs Morris made me feel at home in this far-away country and I enjoyed a unique relationship of master and retainer while being almost a member of the family. I was no slave-driver, so I was bound to be “mounted” – as Chilean friends put it. On meeting me someone once said, “I know you. You work with Don Prospero.”

Despite his domineering and susceptible ways, I became fond of the old devil, even confusing him with my late father in a dream. Prospero and his wife loved trees, plants (especially weeds) and animals. They called a neighbour to slaughter the goat which used to butt my Labrador Rupert as they couldn't bring themselves to kill it. I inadvertently lunched on it with them. 

Prospero disobeyed Señor Nettle’s order to cut down the wisteria after it struck him one dark morning. He hid the roots and brought it back to life after my purchase so that it scatters its violet confetti in celebration of the spring. The whole family saved my house for burning down with the help of an in-law, an off-duty fireman who crawled across the roof with a hose while his obese wife ripped off the roof and flooded the living-room. The furniture was calmly removed in two minutes.

He was indispensable for the flow of water through the orchard in stone canals, turning on the tap, often in the middle of the night, of the communal well hidden beyond a labyrinth of brambles. I had my own gravitational well for the house; the connections were always bursting and he alone knew how to fix them.

We exchanged favours. There was no formal system of barter beyond the traditional “minga” or neighbourly mutual help which has always existed. I brought him gas bottles in my truck and he picked my prickly pears with a beaked pole, rubbing off the invisible thorns with newspaper and taking a bucket of them for himself. He brought onions, which didn’t grow on my land for some reason, and dirty pale green eggs; I supplied avocados and lemons when he had sold all his.

We went “miti-miti” (half and half) with the sweet red wine. He pressed the grapes on a grid of sticks with his dirty finger-nails. But hygiene in wine-making doesn’t matter. Some people drop a dead rat in the barrel to improve the fermentation. My own wine, which fermented with the aid of drowned wasps, had a high reputation, paying off the workers who fenced the farm of my impecunious English friend Simon. The vinegar was even better when used to pickle home-grown onions.

I was too lazy and inexperienced to challenge Prospero’s habit of setting his own tasks and programme. His initiative was convenient for both. He never did what I asked him to do but did much off his own bat. Eventually I had to hire another worker, an affable Bolshie who did everything I told him, slept in a wheel-barrow in his two-hour break and went home on the dot. Between them I got things done.

What I liked best about the relationship with Prospero was crossing the stream on the birthday of one of his children to be received like a prince, no longer a “patron” but the guest of honour among his obedient tribe. The patriarch grilled a steak beneath the corrugated iron shelter of his yard, swishing it with a sprig of rosemary soaked in garlic and lemon juice while I chatted with his socially mobile granddaughters, a glass of pisco sour in my hand.

Sometimes it was a bit of a bore but I told myself noblesse oblige was expected of me. There were long speeches praising his family and me.  I replied in equally glowing terms.

Prospero had his dark side like many a paterfamilias. He had been chosen to lead the local “minimum employment” chain-gangs under the military regime, forcing men into under-paid hard labour and informing on political opponents. He proudly showed me a citation for “services to the Fatherland” signed by a colonel with a German name.

Then there was the question of his daughter, but she has long forgiven him. It was Mrs Morris who denounced him but they celebrated their golden jubilee in church as though her husband’s three years’ absence in gaol had never existed.

They were very Catholic. Felling of trees was begun “in the name of God and the Virgin.” One tree fell within inches of my garden study known as “the Cell”. I was standing close by but no harm was done. According to Mrs Morris, my narrow escape was “because Don Nicolas is very Catholic.” As my house was full of icons, the mistake was understandable. When I blessed my wells on the feast of Christ’s Baptism, thrice dunking a cross while chanting the dismissal hymn in Greek, I was asked to repeat the “service” for the well next door, which had been dug after mine and then registered, making mine technically illegal.
“Privacy, Respect and Family” was Mrs Morris’s motto, which came from her upbringing rather than from a reactionary political party. Her father didn’t speak a word of English but he was as strict as the first Mr Morris. “We couldn’t speak until we were spoken to. He wouldn’t let me marry Prospero at first. He wasn’t good enough for us. He had no education and he doesn’t have now. He’s a clever man my husband. He knows how to make cement. If he’d had a bit of schooling he’d be the mayor.”

“Respect” – at least for me - wasn't shown by all of her children. I caught one of them (let us call him B.), a young bachelor rejected by the seminary, urinating in full view of my bow-window. He often took a crap in my outside lavatory as though there wasn’t one in his own house three hundred yards away – in the bathroom the construction of which I had paid for while building my own house. This behaviour enraged me but I held my tongue.

The Morris family suffered from a rare form of haemophilia. The slightest knock could set off an internal haemorrhage. The wannabe Reverend B. was the one of his generation to be stricken. He was rushed to the military hospital in Santiago and treated by specialists from Brazil and Argentina.
B. was in a coma for two months, expected to die or survive with brain damage. For a while I read a prayer for his recovery but after a month or so I switched to another for his painless passing. A chain of intercessions was organized by the Jesuits from one end of Latin America to the other. Prospero spoke of his firm belief in the recovery of his “holy child” who had never smoked, drunk or had anything to do with women.
As I have already implied, medical ethics in Chile prolong life at all costs. There is no opting out of artificial support systems or gruesome operations, even if the state is paying. It’s a Catholic thing though what it has to do with a belief in the afterlife defeats me. Even the devout B. begged not to be operated on again. Yet what had all those doctors come to Chile for if not to experiment? In the disinterested spirit of science they sucked out part of his brain.

 B. recovered and looks no feebler than he was before. He has been the stalwart support of his ancient parents. I forgive him his scatological peccadilloes and wish Don Prospero all the best in the next life.