There used to be a tumbledown tin-roofed house of mud walls and sticks at the overgrown junction of the Las Colinas route with the dusty washboard surface of the road to the Sports Club. That house was now long gone. As a child, Paul had seen it crumble year by year after its builder had abandoned it, a victim of time, rain, sun, and neglect born of indifference, a metaphor for the country’s demoralization. No-one else wanted to live there. In its place was impassable monte, waste ground colonized by dense sub-tropical undergrowth, a jumble of riotous vegetation full of insect life and monotonous birdcall. The road to the Club was still there, recently paved and smelling of tar, but the Club itself, overcrowded with raucous nouveau-riche, was no longer the enchanted place of childhood memory, its facilities now outworn and ill-maintained. The deserted tennis courts were strewn with debris, and the swimming pool no longer sparkled. Its diving boards had been clumsily removed; only short amputated metal posts with sharp edges remained. He remembered the high diving board. Twenty years before, he had jumped from it, legs folded and held with both arms underneath in order to make the bigger splash required for a ‘bomb’ and he landed on the back of an unseen and unsuspecting girl beneath. The girl was Esmeralda, who was then in the same class at the private school they both attended. Both of them were under the strict authority of Irene Beck, its formidable headmistress, who was also Esmeralda’s stepmother. Paul had never forgotten this incident, the first and last troubling physical contact with his classmate, and he feared the consequences of his carelessness. Did he still carry the guilt, he wondered, twenty years later? Surely not…yet he had to prepare to meet her again that very afternoon. What would he say to her after all this time?
By nightfall, Esmeralda had not arrived as expected. Paul reflected on his visit to the pool earlier in the day as he paced the driveway of Mrs. Beck’s Altamira house. The headmistress, now retired, was abroad, but overjoyed to welcome a visiting alumnus, and had telephoned before they left to insist on Paul and his wife staying in her house for their week-long holiday. “Hendrik and I will be in Thailand when you arrive, but Maria will look after you. She has only Alicia as company in our absence. Alicia is Hendrik’s granddaughter, Esmeralda’s girl. She’s only ten. Or is it nine? One forgets as one ages. Do you remember Esmeralda?” She did not wait for his reply. “You may see her: you were in the same class, I think. You’ll have a lot to catch up on!” Mrs. Beck ignored all of Paul’s protests until he accepted. “Mi casa es su casa. Hotels are far too expensive. We love guests, but we always travel in the rainy season. We’ll be sorry to miss you, but next time you come, we’ll get to meet your wife. Must go now. Cheers!”