The International Writers
Brush with the Law
burly youth waved a piece of broken stick at Ana. They were down
a side street of La Boca, a touristy enclave of Buenos Aires in
the middle of a run-down neighbourhood. She was cornered. Two
minutes ago, Ana had been wandering with other foreigners in the
sweaty January heat, gazing at the intensely disappointing coloured
houses and the tacky artwork. She cursed herself for drifting
away from the crowds and for her pasty complexion and shorts that
marked her unmistakably as a tourist.
"Give me your bag," he repeated.
This time his eyes narrowed menacingly. The boy was thin and his bare
chest was deeply tanned. A delicate tattoo of a wasp with a large sting
hovered just above his right nipple. Anas gaze was fixed on the
end of the splintered stick he brandished a slightly-bent rusty
nail showed its tip between the shards of dusty wood. By concentrating
on the red-brown point she contained her fear, her urge to shout and run.
"Now!" he cried.
Ana faltered slightly. A man was walking towards her; and the boy was
not so very big. His exposed chest was almost hairless and a wispy down
only slightly darkened his scowling upper lip. Ana could sense his fear
and, like a loud dog, he would turn and flee if she challenged the bold
facade. She dared not tackle him alone, but it would be a different matter
with a full-grown man nearby. She stumbled over some Spanish, seeking
to delay the moment she handed over her belongings. Ana fostered this
shard of hope; while she did not have much in her purse that morning,
she desperately did not want to lose out to a pubescent amateur.
Glancing up, she evaluated the middle-aged man who walked towards her.
He was balding and slightly unsteady in his gait, although the brightly-coloured
and bulky bags in his arms spoke of a distant youthful strength that had
not altogether disappeared. Ana looked down so that the boy would not
suspect of her impending salvation.
The man walked straight past. A furtive glance and his gaze shifted irrevocably
onto an object far in the distance. He had seen, but chosen not to see;
he had heard Anas breathless cry of "señor!", but
pretended not to hear.
"Shut it, bitch," the boy snarled, but he had hesitated.
The fear Ana sensed in him floated towards the surface before sinking
as he regained his authority. Once again he was alone with his victim
among the piles of rubbish and broken cobblestones.
Anas will to resist vanished and with resignation, she flung her
bag at her assailant, who caught it deftly, his expression changing instantly
to surprise as he relaxed his thick eyebrows. It made him look younger.
Ana turned and walked away, the invisible bond between them broken.
Two blocks away, she sat down. Tears of frustration mixed with the salt
of her sweat that had flowed freely under the mid-day sun.
Ana suddenly felt a probing hand on her back and wrenched her head round
suspiciously. The face hovering over her was reassuring, although she
did not understand a word the middle-aged woman was saying. Her brown
eyes were friendly and the womans outstretched hands invited Ana
to stand up and follow her. The old woman had a trace of a moustache above
thin lips and her teeth were stained a rich brown. She lit up a strong
cigarette almost immediately and held it in a gnarled hand as she chattered
excitedly. When she gesticulated, hot ash showered onto the baking pavement.
Ana allowed herself to be led meekly to a police station.
As the unusual pair reached the station, Ana said goodbye to the old woman,
at first formally, but she felt herself unfriendly and so hugged the woman
and gave her a kiss on a wrinkled cheek. The skin brushing Anas
lips reminded her of the raw bumps on a plucked chicken where feathers
had connected to flesh.
Inside the low building, a large policeman, whose bloated stomach was
only just contained by his matt-black, stab-proof vest, made Ana wait
in line. Three stripes on his sleeve identified him as a sergeant and
he surveyed the dishevelled queue through smeared dark glasses, his thumbs
hooked inside the shoulder straps of his vest. He was thoroughly bored.
After a short wait, the fat sergeant ushered Ana into a small office.
Inside there was a rough-cut desk, a battleship-grey filing cabinet and
a small, greasy window through which light filtered uneasily. A smoking
foil ashtray and a plastic cup of coffee sat on the desk a residue
of grainy sludge coated the bottom and one side of the white styrofoam.
A pile of papers was strewn carelessly across the surface and Ana noticed
a dirty grey sprinkling of dust over those closest to her. The office
was lit by a fluorescent tube that cast little shadow.
A young police officer smiled at her coyly behind the desk. He knew Ana
spoke little Spanish and so proceeded in a formal school-boy English.
The officer was closely shaved and his uniform was smart on his shoulders,
almost elegant. He had clearly polished his rank-bearing golden epaulettes
with puerile pride. Ana could see the individual pores of his nose under
the harsh light.
"What is your name, señorita?" he asked.
"Ana Gordon," she replied.
"My name is Marcelo; sub-inspector Marcelo Casas at your disposal,"
he said, expanding his chest and smiling again.
Ana was reminded of a policeman in a film. She suspected Casas cast himself
as the gallant officer of the law. Once the formal introduction was over,
he allowed himself to take off his cap and fuss over the objects on his
desk. The braided cap had a dark sweat patch on the inside rim.
The officer helped Ana through an incident form reporting the theft, translating
each of the blanks on the sheet of paper; name, address, telephone number,
items stolen, value of said items. Casas had stood up and leaned across
Ana to point at the form with a squat finger. She could smell his uniform
a bitter-sweet concoction of sweat and aftershave. It was not unpleasant.
Together they completed the form easily, although it was a mere formality,
Casas had hinted as much.
"Perhaps it will help you with an insurance claim?" he had asked
unconvincingly, filing the form near the top of the drab cabinet in a
battered brown folder.
Ana thanked Casas and stood up to leave, turning around carefully in the
confined space. She reached for the door handle and was about to push
outwards. A stifled cough from Casas made her look round. Ana could sense
he was nervous.
"There is one more thing, señorita," he said, glancing
briefly at his precisely-cut nails.
She did not reply, but looked at him questioningly.
"Would you grant me the honour of joining me for a drink sometime?"
Ana pushed the door open and walked out, the absurdly formal question
falling far behind her.
I met Ana at a party one of those summer expat affairs where people
of multiple nationalities crowd into a dark patio to drink lukewarm beer
and sweat moistly. At the time, I was an exchange student at the University
of Buenos Aires a huge public university where smoke and vocal
student politics mixed feverishly in an exciting contrast to mundane Brighton
University back in pedestrian England.
Ana stood out at once. Partly it was her looks that caught my attention
she had a ready smile and wore a loose turquoise dress that flowed
smoothly over her slim body. She had a small birth mark on her left cheek,
which she would cover in unconscious embarrassment with a delicate blue-veined
hand. Ana handed me a dripping beer from a bucket of meltwater as I kissed
her cheek in the standard Argentine greeting. I smelled a trace of perfume
and the sickly-sweet smell of strawberry chewing-gum.
Ana was also an exchange student sociology and a Canadian
from Douglas, on Vancouver Island. She had told me the story of her mugging
whilst slumped on a couch at five in the morning. I sat next to her, but
on the floor, my back against the uncomfortable, but redeemingly cool,
white paint. Most guests had gone or were leaving. The host, a Frenchman
named Pierre, was sweeping his terrace and moving empties with an occasional
chink of glass towards the front door. Both Ana and I had drunk too much
and the silences between our sentences were long. I still held a glass
of flat beer, but hardly sipped any longer.
"The cheek of it," she said, "imagine being hit on by a
cop in that state!"
I met Ana again two weeks later at her flat, so that we could go over
some of her texts. I had been in Argentina longer than her and my Spanish
was quite reasonable. Plus, in return for my help, she promised to cook
me some dinner. I rang her fourth floor flat expectantly.
As she came forward to greet me downstairs, an attractive young man tried
to shoulder past me awkwardly. He had short brown hair gelled into a discreet
crest and broad shoulders. He wore a smart shirt and tight black jeans.
Ana made an embarrassed introduction that I could not catch; it was too
fast and low. We engaged in a fleeting handshake and the man stepped out
of the door into the humid night, his absence defusing Anas awkwardness
"Come in, good to see you again," she said with efficient light-heartedness.
"And you," I replied with a half-formed smile.
We reached the lift and I pushed across the sliding grille, as if to let
her in first, but kept my arm between Ana and the open door. I looked
at her questioningly; my arched eyebrows spoke for themselves.
"The policeman," she replied with a little giggle and a touch
of red to her cheeks.
© JAMES MATTHEWS MARCH 2007
EMAIL: james.matthews at university-college.oxford.ac.uk
In few places in Latin America is the collision of imperialist Catholic
Spaniards with indigenous Maya cultures more visible than in the small
village of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico.
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