SMALL STATIONS PRESS Publications
THE POTATO EATERS

THE POTATO EATERS by Manuel Rivas

Sam is a drug addict with a sense of humour. One particular escapade lands him in hospital, where he makes friends with the old man in the adjoining bed and becomes progressively enamoured of the nurse Miss Cowbutt’s unsung qualities. In an attempt to wean him off his drug habit, his elder brother, Nico, takes him to the village, Aita, where their grandmother lives, a world far removed from the distractions of modern life, in which even the silence seems animate. He meets up with Gaby the single mother and Dombodán the collector of discarded items. He also becomes acquainted with a slippery customer named ‘Sir’ who takes refuge in the radio set in the attic. A host of colourful characters – from Tip and Top to the ‘relentless lady’ – populate this tale, which pits a victim of zero expectations against the haunting traditions of the village.

My Mother

 

There is my mother, so thin and sad. Whenever I see her looking like that, with those eyes of a wounded animal, I feel like bursting into tears. She really loves me.

‘You’re a wretch,’ she mutters. ‘A complete disaster.’

I so want her to give me a kiss and to ruffle my blond, curly locks, the way they do to children at their First Communion before they’ve spilt something on top of their sailor’s suit. I love her too.

‘Go to hell, mother,’ I say in such a loud voice it sends a shock of pain down my leg. ‘I don’t know why you had to come.’

My leg. What on earth is going on in there? I feel as if it’s being gnawed by a mouse. The doctor told me everything would be fine, but one leg would be shorter than the other because the big bone, whatever it’s called, the one that goes from here to here, splintered like the branch of a tree.

‘I’m going to have a limp,’ I tell my mother with a smile.

‘Wretch!’ she replies.

Luou, Spiderman, is in a really bad way. He’s covered in plaster from head to toe, with just his face open, like a mummy. He went tumbling down the hill like a rag doll and got stuck on some iron railings. He makes for a pitiable sight. He’ll spend months gazing up at the ceiling.

‘He was the one driving,’ I tell my mother. And I light a cigarette.

‘Don’t smoke in here, you wretch!’

We went to the airport to see the blue lights and to take Something and then to descend the Alvedro curves at 120. The car rose into the air as if it wanted to fly, and then it really did fly, gliding over the hillside until it landed at the bottom like a sluggish, spent duck. After the fall, we heard again the tape’s Gypsy music, all alone in the world. We were in a garden. I can recall the scent, as of soapy water. Nothing was happening, the stars were in their places, luminous backstitches on the great vault. I fell asleep, licking the sweet blood of my lips.

‘Put that cigarette out, you wretch!’

My mother really loves me. She feels for me.

‘Why don’t you just leave me alone?’

I hate seeing her like this.

 

Luou

 

Luou doesn’t have a mother or anything. He’s an outcast. I think he ran away from the reformatory a hundred times. What he likes best are cars. He knows everything there is to know about cars. Had he been driving, I have no doubt we would have coasted down the Alvedro curves. I wasn’t fully convinced, but I said to him, ‘Let me have a go, Luou.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘You’ll soon see, Luou.’ What can I say? No comment.

He was happy in the reformatory because the food was good and there was a video. But it was very close to the Avenue, and the hum of mechanics didn’t let him sleep. He would jump over the wall, head into town and grab himself a good one. He would spend the night dodging sirens, doing handbrake turns, testing all the other wretches on their way to work at that hour of the morning, who held back in amazement. One of History’s unsolved mysteries is how Luou had it in him to reach the pedals and look through the windscreen at one and the same time. When he got tired, he would head to the Main Breakwater, switch on the radio and smoke, hunched in the seat, his feet on the steering wheel. Luou told me that squid fishermen would shine their torches on him, but normally it was the police. One day, however, the police took him back to the reformatory, and he got turned away.

‘What do you mean, you don’t want him?’ asked one of the officers from the patrol car, annoyed as if he’d just been told his son was not going to be accepted into a fee-paying school.

‘He was born on the 24th of the 10th, 1974. Here are his papers. Check it out for yourself. Today’s his birthday. He’s now too old.’

‘So what am I supposed to do with him?’

‘That’s your business,’ replied the janitor coldly, hanging on to the door handle.

‘Does he have any family?’

‘It doesn’t say.’

‘Anyone who can take charge of him?’

‘It doesn’t say.’

‘Come on, lad. You heard the man. They don’t want you in here.’

The officer placed a hand on Luou’s shoulder, opened the door of the patrol car and indicated to him to get in. He was visibly moved.

‘Damn it, lad. Someone had to give you a good spanking when you were young.’

‘What happens now?’ asked the colleague who was driving.

‘They don’t want the snotty-nosed kid in there. He’s old enough to go to the clink.’

He was really overwhelmed. Luou told me that officer was one of the few people who cared for him during his life.

‘It’s a shame no one ever gave you a really good kick in the balls,’ he said with moist eyes.

They took him back to the judge, a man with swollen eyelids who stank of alcohol. He had hair growing like shadowy grass in his nostrils and earholes. Outside, it was pouring down, the water washing away the city’s stain-encrusted carpet. Luou looked at the female figures dressed in tunics, etched on the glass. They were reminiscent of men. There was also a marble statue showing its breasts, but devoid of any warm feeling. Everybody came and went with grim expressions, as if the woman with bare breasts did not exist.

The lawyer on duty, possibly influenced by the delinquent’s size, took the case seriously and banged his fist on the desk. The judge muttered to himself, went ‘hum, hum’, and the lawyer apologized. Finally, Luou was allowed to go to prison and had a family for a while.

As for me, I don’t think I’ll talk about my studies and things like that. What I do have is a family.

 

Help

 

I have asked my mother to bring me the Sentimental Recordings. Ever since this all happened, I haven’t known whether I’m sad or happy, calm or anxious, laughing in sorrow or weeping for joy. Sometimes my leg hurts, and that comforts me; other times, I can’t feel it and I start trembling with cold, as if the bed’s iron bars were lumps of ice and the plaster an icicle hanging from the ceiling. I have the TV remote, but I need Help. I’ve been a week now without listening to Help, without talking to Help. If only I could call Help, everything would be easier.

‘Help! Hi, Help!’

‘How’s it going, boy?’

‘OK. I have a broken leg, Help.’

‘Ah, the King of Crutches!’

‘It’s 345 here.’

It’s incredible. You give him your fan-club number, and he identifies you straight away.

‘Dance then, Samuel! Today, living.

Help is my favourite music presenter. His programme is called Sweet Dreams. Have you never heard it? It’s really something very special. His voice has an echo. I’m not sure how to explain it. The world is full of preachers, but only Help knows the kind of key you need.

‘You’re on the edge of the abyss, aren’t you? Take courage. One foot forward. Today, unease.

Sweet Dreams always starts with a slogan that is a kind of feeling. For example, Help says, ‘Today, awful,’ or ‘Today, enjoyment,’ or ‘Today, laziness.’ You find out lots of words you didn’t know before or that didn’t speak to you. Help always has a very specific term to hand to express your state of mind.

‘How are you feeling today?’ asks Help. And then he adds, for example, ‘Today, hate.

The incredible thing is how Help manages to transmit the same feeling with his choice of music. If Help says, ‘Today, happiness,’ then life that day is like paradise, old people giving crumbs to the pigeons in St Margaret’s Park and all the faces in the galleries on the seafront imbued with sunlight. When Help says, ‘Today, melancholy,’ my eyes mist over, and I let myself be led like a drop of rain sliding down the window of the Dársena café on an autumn evening. If you write down the slogans of a month and send them to the radio station, Help sends what he calls a Sentimental Recording. You can’t imagine how well-behaved I can be when I want something. I managed to put together an Anthology of Feelings, the equivalent of eight Sentimental Recordings, each of which contains eight Feelings. Help is great at explaining. Our head is like a computer; a Feeling is a bit, an electric impulse; eight bits make a byte, which is to say a Sentimental Recording. With a byte, I can get my head in order for a week. With an Anthology, I can get by for a whole season – one spring, for example. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not always a question of listening to optimistic recordings. In time, I have come to appreciate and even desire other states of mind. One of my favourites is ‘Today, loneliness’.

The doctor said in two weeks I should be able to walk down the corridor on crutches and reach the public phone booth in Orthopaedics. I shall say, ‘Hello, Help, it’s me, 345!’ And he will reply in his dinosaur’s voice, ‘Samuel, my friend, how is life?’

 

Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    THE POTATO EATERS by Manuel Rivas, the sixth title in the series Small Stations Fiction devoted to the best of contemporary fiction in English, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

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    ISBN: 978-954-384-052-6

    Publication Date: 15 August 2016

    Language: English

    Paperback: 136 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm