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The Whispering Land - Durrell Gerald - Страница 1


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Part One

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THE CUSTOMS* OF THE COUNTRY

Buenos Aires, decked out for spring, was looking her* best. The tall and elegant buildings seemed to gleam like icebergs in the sun, and the broad avenues were lined with jacaranda trees* covered with a mist of mauve blue flowers, or palo borracho,* with their strange bottle-shaped trunks and their spindly branches starred with yellow and white flowers. The spring-like atmosphere seemed to have infected the pedestrians, who fled across the road through the traffic with even less caution than usual, while the drivers of the trams, buses and cars vied with each other in the time-honoured Buenos Aires game of seeing how close they could get to each other at the maximum speed without actually crashing.

Not having a suicidal streak* in me, I had refused to drive in the city, and so we swept on our death-defying way in the Land-Rover* with Josefina at the wheel. Short, with curly auburn hair and big brown eyes, Josefina had a smile like a searchlight that could paralyse even the most unsusceptible male at twenty paces. By my side sat Mercedes, tall, slim, blonde and blue-eyed; she habitually wore an expression as though butter would not melt in her mouth, and this successfully concealed an iron will and grim, bulldog-like tenacity of purpose. These two girls were part of my private army of feminine pulchritude* that I used in dealing with officialdom in the Argentine.* At that precise moment we were heading towards the massive building that looked like a cross between the Parthenon and the Reichstag* in whose massive interior lurked the most formidable enemy of sanity and liberty in Argentina: the Aduana, or Customs. On my arrival, some three weeks earlier, they had let all my highly dutiable articles of equipment, such as cameras, film, the Land-Rover and so on, into the country without a murmur; but, for some reason known only to the Almighty and the scintillating brains in the Aduana, they had confiscated all my nets, traps, cage-fronts and other worthless but necessary items of collecting equipment. So, for the past three weeks Mercedes, Josefina and I had spent every day in the bowels* of the massive Customs House, being passed from office to office with a sort of clockwork-like regularity which was so monotonous and so frustrating that you really began to wonder if your brain would last out the course. Mercedes regarded me anxiously as Josefina wove in and out* of fleeing pedestrians in a way that made my stomach turn over.

"How are you feeling today, Gerry?" she asked.

"Wonderful, simply wonderful" I said bitterly; "there's nothing I like better than to get up on a lovely morning like this and to feel that I have the whole sunlit day lying ahead in which to get on more intimate terms with the Customs."

"Now, please don't talk like that," she said; "you promised me you wouldn't lose your temper again, it doesn't do any good."

"It may not do any good, but it relieves my feelings. I swear to you that if we are kept waiting half an hour outside an office to be told by its inmate at the end of it that it's not his department, and to go along to Room Seven Hundred and Four, I shall not be responsible for my actions."

"But today we are going to see Senor Garcia," said Mercedes, with the air of one promising a sweet to a child.

I snorted. "To the best of my knowledge* we have seen at least fourteen Senor Garcias in that building in the past three weeks. The Garcia tribe treat the Customs as though it's an old family firm. I should imagine that all the baby Garcias are born with a tiny rubber-stamp in their hands," I said, warming to my work.*

"Oh, dear, I think you'd better sit in the car," said Mercedes.

"What, and deprive me of the pleasure of continuing my genealogical investigation of the Garcia family?"

"Well, promise that you won't say anything," she said, turning her kingfisher-blue eyes on me pleadingly. "Please, Gerry, not a word."

"But I never do say anything," I protested, "if I really voiced my thoughts the whole building would go up in flames."

"What about the other day when you said that under the dictatorship you got your things in and out of the country without trouble, whereas now we were a democracy you were being treated like a smuggler?"

"Well, it's perfectly true. Surely one is allowed to voice one's thoughts, even in a democracy? For the last three weeks we have done nothing but struggle with these moronic individuals in the Customs, none of whom appears to be able to say anything except advise you to go and see Senor Garcia down the hall. I've wasted three weeks of valuable time when I could have been filming and collecting animals."

"De hand…* de hand…" Josefina said suddenly and loudly. I stuck my arm out of the window, and the speeding line of traffic behind us screeched to a shuddering halt* as Josefina swung the Land-Rover into the side turning… The shouts of rage mingled with cries of "?Animal!"* faded behind us.

"Josefina, I do wish you would give us all a little more warning when you're going to turn," I said. Josefina turned her glittering smile on to me.

"Why?" she inquired simply.

"Well, it helps you know. It gives us a chance to prepare to meet our Maker."*

"I'ave never crash you yet, no?" she asked. "No, but I feel it's only a matter of time." We swept majestically across an intersection at forty miles an hour, and a taxi coming from the opposite direction had to apply all its brakes to avoid hitting us amidships.*

"Blurry* Bastard," said Josefina tranquilly.

"Josefina! You must not use phrases like that," I remonstrated.

"Why not?" asked Josefina innocently. "You do."

"That is not the point," I said severely.

"But it is nice to say, no?" she said with satisfaction. "And I 'ave learn more; I know Blurry Bastard and…"

"All right, all right," I said hastily. "I believe you. But for Heaven's sake don't use them in front of your mother, otherwise she'll stop you driving for me."

There were, I reflected, certain drawbacks to having beautiful young women to help you in your work. True, they could charm the birds out of the trees, but I found that they also had tenacious memories when it came to the shorter, crisper Anglo-Saxon expletives* which I was occasionally driven to using in moments of stress.

"De hand… de hand," said Josefina again, and we swept across the road, leaving a tangle of infuriated traffic behind us, and drew up outside the massive and gloomy facade of the Aduana.

Three hours later we emerged, our brains numb, our feet aching, and threw ourselves into the Land-Rover.

"Where we go to now?" inquired Josefina listlessly.

"A bar," I said, "any bar where I can have a brandy and a couple of aspirins."

"O. K.," said Josefina, letting in the clutch.

"I think tomorrow we will have success," said Mercedes, in an effort to revive our flagging spirits.

"Listen," I said with some asperity, "Senor Garcia, God bless his blue chin and eau-de-cologne-encrusted brow,* was about as much use as a beetle in a bottle. And you know it."

"No, no, Gerry. He has promised tomorrow to take me to see one of the high-up men in the Aduana." What's his name… Garcia?" "No, a Senor Dante."

"How singularly appropriate. Only a man with a name like Dante would be able to survive in the Inferno of Garcias."*

Josefina drew up outside a bar, and we assembled at a table on the edge of the pavement and sipped our drinks in depressed silence. Presently I managed to shake my mind free of the numbing effect* that the Aduana always had on it, and turn my attention to other problems.

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