In the Dona Berta garden, there’s a bench. The only one left. All the others have been torn up, turned into loose planks bound for firewood. On this last remaining bench there lives an old man. Every night, seat and man, wood and flesh, cuddle up together. It’s said the old man’s got stripes on his skin, patterned by the shape of the planks, his outer skeleton. The elderly gentleman has been given a name: Vlademiro. He’s been named after the avenue that passes by there, brushing against his solitude: Vlademir Lenin Avenue.
Today I was told the bench is to be removed because they are going to build a new branch of a bank on the site. I was knocked sideways by the news: that little garden was the only world my friend had left, his last refuge. I decided to pay Vlademiro a visit, a mission of the heart.
—Sad? Who said I was sad?
I couldn’t believe my ears: the man was overjoyed with the news. A branch of a bank, one of those financial ones, all firm and concreted, was worth much more than a branch of a tree. They’d already told him how big it was going to be, there’d be plenty of room for him to sleep along with his pet animal. And who knows, maybe he’d get a job there too? Even if it was only looking after the flowerbeds round about. So he was moving from a garden full of branches to a branch full of garden.
—I’m going from branch to Branch.
His was a sad laugh, devoid of tincture. It would soon grow dark. When night fell, Vlademiro would wallow in drink, emptying the dregs left in bottles. When he was drunk, he would cross the night, crablike. On the other side of the avenue stand the prostitutes. The proxitutes, as he calls them. He knows them all by name. When they don’t have any clients they venture into the garden and sit down next to him. Vlademiro tells them his tall stories and they take his nonsense for lullabies. Sometimes, he listens to these girls of the night shouting and screaming. Someone’s beating them. The old man buries himself impotently in his arms, unable to respond to their cries for help, while he calls God to account.
—God’s too good, he doesn’t punish anyone now.
Vlademiro was on speaking terms with the almighty. His chitchat with the divine surprised me. Vlademiro was once the lord’s most zealous of followers. But the old man can explain it: as we get older we begin to take liberties with the sacred. It’s because we overcome our fear. Is it that the more we know the less we believe? He neither knows nor believes. Sometimes he even wonders:
—Has God become an atheist?
Can it be that the old man is exempt from fear in his life? All alone like that, without a home of his own, a proper home. He challenges me on this point:
—A proper home? Has anyone got more of a proper home than this?
Sometimes, in his illness, he senses that death is close by and on the prowl. But Vlademiro knows a few tricks, and gives the one who has come to fetch him the slip. Even with teeth chattering and his eyes glinting with fever, he sings, his voice trembling as he pretends he’s a woman. Women, he says, take longer to die.
—Death likes to listen to a song. He stops thinking about me and dances.
And that’s how life goes on, a game of hide-and-seek. Until one day, death steals a march and is the first to sing. But death is going to have to persist if he’s to dislodge him. Vlademiro is well ensconced on his bench. And he insists he’s not of an age to go yet. The old are those who don’t visit their own various ages.
In the meantime, Vlademiro sleeps little and light. His alarm clock is a toad. He sleeps with the amphibian tied to his leg. And he explains, in serious tone: the creature’s only tied up to stop him taking off.
—A toad doesn’t fly because he’s let water into his heart.
Now, everything is coming to an end. They’re going to demolish the garden, the city is going to become more urban, less human. That’s why I’m paying the old man a visit. I return to the reason for my going there:
—Tell me about this business of the bank: are you really happy?
Vlademiro takes his time. He’s seeking the best truth he can find. The smile vanishes from his face.
—You’re right. This cheerfulness of mine is a lie.
—Then why are you putting on an act?
—Did I never tell you about my late wife?
I shook my head. The old man tells me the story of his wife who died a lingering death full of suffering. A sluggish, putrefying disease. He would clown around in front of her all day, and crack jokes to scare away the crack of doom. The woman would laugh, who knows, maybe out of pity for the man in his kindness. It was at night, when she was asleep, that he would weep, crazy with despair.
—It’s like now: I only cry when the garden has gone to sleep.
My arm speaks round his shoulder. It’s time to say good-bye. I return to my senses with a far greater feeling of abandonment. Behind me, I leave Vlademiro, the avenue and a garden with its solitary bench. The last bench in the garden.