There is an image that keeps nagging at the back of my mind. An empty highway, a bus that has broken down, and, at the back of the bus, an incredibly old man sitting by himself, clutching a bunch of flowers. This happened long before we went to Venice. Before we moved to London. I don’t know why I feel compelled to write about it now. Why this insistent past, I wonder, like a wad of phlegm that will not go down?
It was 2005. I close my eyes and try to stare back into the place where that person — Miles — was, but my glance keeps slipping. Was it Yoko Ono, in one of her instructions, who suggested to viewers that they repeat their own name out loud, again and again, until the word no longer means anything? Miles, whoever he is. I can see him boarding the plane. I can see him eating the plane food, drinking his beer, gazing out the window in ecstasy — that is the right word — at the rubbled landscape below. I see him disembarking in Santiago. He is alone. Alice is still in Melbourne, in the apartment they once shared in St Kilda, working twice as hard in order to pay the rent by herself. They will see what happens. Perhaps she will join him in a month or so and travel with him through South America. After this, maybe they will move to London together. Or then again, maybe he will meet someone else and never come back. In which case, she won’t join him.
It seems inconceivable to me now that she would have accepted this arrangement. That I even proposed it, vague though it must have been. My selfishness staggers me. Later, she will tell me: it was like a game of chess in which you were the black and you were the white and I could only watch and wait to see what happened.
The airport is almost empty when he arrives; a dusty, white, ageing building in the middle of what I remember as a desert. A bus takes him through this desert, past cactuses, and rubbish, and small, desolate shacks. He thinks: what the fuck have I done? They drive through suburbs that seem to be covered by a layer of ash, as if a volcano has erupted nearby. Poor garages, patched-up houses, an atmosphere of brooding neglect. Eventually, they arrive at a bus station. He does not know where he is, or which way to walk, but he does not want to open his guidebook right here, like any other tourist. He uses his very meagre Spanish — Disculpa, donde esta calle de something or other? — and receives conflicting information, a lot of words he doesn’t understand, a general direction. He nods and thanks these various men. They watch him go with blank faces.
Outside the station, the narrow footpath is lined with fold-out tables from which people are selling piles of junk: plastic toys, electrical components, clock radios, matches, shoes, locks, watches, mobile phones, beads, old keys, combs, sunglasses, pornographic DVDs, pens, batteries, torches, television remote controls. He walks and walks. It is so early in his trip to feel disillusioned, to feel like crying. It is hot, and he rests in a patch of grass in the middle of the highway. On either side, old yellow buses are heaving back and forth, overtaking each other, braking suddenly, spewing out clouds of acrid brown smoke. He lies in the grass with his backpack next to him, thinking: this is what you wanted, to be completely lost. He can’t remember why he wanted this.
A girl comes and sits beside him. She might be eighteen, but she is probably younger. She is curious to know what he is doing here, in this country, in the middle of the road. Where does he come from? They quickly exhaust their ability to speak to one another. He flips frantically through his phrasebook looking for something to say, so that she won’t leave him. And yet he cannot find anything that seems appropriate. He keeps coming to the same page, to the word menstruation.
Santiago eludes him. Every time he thinks he has found its centre, its heart, it dwindles into nothing. Roads that seem promising, that beckon with lights and excited crowds and old, ruined buildings, materialise into dead ends. The lights are just streetlights, the buildings long vacated, the crowds are people waiting for a bus. And yet, every now and then, the horizon, which for the most part is indistinguishable behind a film of brown smog, suddenly appears: immense snow-capped mountains, the Andes growing out of the sky like stone clouds.
He and Alice exchange tentative emails, and on one occasion he calls her from a payphone.
Do you want me to come or not? she says.
Yes, he says, but without conviction. Please. I want you to come.
What does he want though? It has only been a few weeks and he is incredibly lonely. But why did he come here, if not to be alone, to suffer and see for himself.
I’ll think about it, she says.
One night, drinking alone in a bar, he thinks he sees her walking past the window, arm in arm with another man. He sits at his table for a few moments, paralysed and drunk, and when he finally runs out onto the street they have disappeared. Could she have come here without telling him? He is shaken.
Alice writes to him. She is still in Melbourne. People are starting to grate on me, she says, although maybe that’s just because I haven’t smoked in a week. Melbourne is bleak and familiar and yet nothing feels real since you left. I keep thinking I hear you moving in the other room. And last night, I’m ashamed to admit, I wore one of your old T-shirts to bed, so that I could smell you. I had terrible dreams and I woke convinced you had forgotten my name. You kept calling me ‘mate’.
He travels to Patagonia. In two weeks, he spends more than a hundred hours on one bus or another, passing back and forth between Chile and Argentina. Waking up to the view of this landscape out the window, exhausted and bewildered, is like being punched in the heart. A terrible flatness that feels like the end of the world. The shrines that line the highways, decorated with flags and flowers and crosses and plastic soft-drink bottles. A blue billboard rising up from the darkness, glowing like a religious apparition. The rusted carcasses of ships conked out on a stone beach. A small girl pushing her face into the window at the border crossing, whispering: Viva Chile. A crow inspecting the crushed body of another crow.
He travels to Buenos Aires. It is a revelation. How could he have wasted so much time in Santiago when this city was just waiting here? A city like some sort of magical old machine. He moves into the Hotel Corrientes, a dilapidated turquoise building inhabited fleetingly by families who have come from the country looking for work. It is incredibly cheap and the room smells terrible, like years and years of loneliness and poverty. Bright morning sun slants down, and small children run screaming laps along the balconies, disappearing and reappearing amongst the shadows. They stop outside his open door to stare at him sitting there in the gloom, as if at a ghost or a very old man.
He writes to Alice. Do you still remember who I am? he asks. Yes, she replies, unfortunately, I do remember who you are. You’re that arsehole from my art history class. What’s up?
On the internet, he sees that a giant sinkhole has opened in Guatemala, swallowing houses and people. The photograph shows a street corner and the severed edge of a building beside an enormous pit. You can hear the sound of rushing water, the article says, three hundred feet below, and smell the foul odour of sewage. The building teetering on the edge of the abyss, he realises, looks remarkably like the one in which he is staying.
Alice writes: I have decided I don’t want to quit smoking at all. What was I thinking? She writes: Quiero hacer el amor contigo cada minuto del día.
A friend of a friend helps him find a small apartment overlooking a sea of battered white and grey rooftops. There is a fat, friendly doorman who sits in the lobby listening to the opera or the football, and an elevator like a magical cage in which he rises every evening, exhausted, possibly happy, possibly delirious with happiness.
She writes: Next Tuesday is the first day of spring. I’ll be at the airport in Buenos Aires at 8.45 pm. You could meet me there with some flowers, if you wanted.
The night before Alice is due to arrive, he meets a girl in a bar. She is an Australian like him, from Melbourne, like him. It is not, of course, anything more than a very small coincidence, but it seems significant, albeit somehow disappointing. He has been trying to avoid other Australians. There is something wayward or unpredictable about this girl, as if she has summed him up already and is waiting for him to disprove her. At one point, she reaches around and ties up her long, curly hair. Like this, she seems suddenly elegant, and the thought crosses his mind, disconcertingly, that she might be two people at once — two alternating women who do not even know each other. At three in the morning, the bar closes and they step into the street. She takes his arm. The streets are empty except for the clatter of the cartoneros who pull their carts loaded with cardboard through the darkness, and then, at the door to her hostel, he allows her to take him by the hand, to lead him up the staircase towards a room she is sharing with her best friend, who may or may not wake up during the night to observe whatever it is that happens between them.
It is the next day. He is exhausted and hung-over and almost nauseated with guilt. He checks his emails. I’m at Changi Airport, Alice writes. A bit jetlagged, but actually quite relaxed. I have the smoking garden to thank for that — how amazing to sit among these tropical sunflowers. Everything feels like it’s going to be okay, in any case. It’s strange. I guess I must still love you, after all.
He buys flowers, and takes the bus towards the airport. It is a long, circuitous route, during which the bus fills, and empties, and refills countless times. A filthy sunset has burnt itself out beyond the paddocks. They have been travelling for hours, but it could also be years, decades. When he is finally the last person on board, on a highway in the middle of nowhere, the bus breaks down. The driver gets out and lies down under the front of the bus to inspect the engine. Now he is completely alone. In the field to his right, there is a fire burning for no apparent reason, and further off in the distance he can see the beginning of the slums from where the cartoneros will soon be coming again. He wonders if he should get out and help the driver, but he doesn’t know anything about engines. Even if he wanted to, anyway, he cannot move. He sits alone at the back of the bus, paralysed, like an old man, clutching a sweaty bunch of flowers.