Artillery Row

Letter from Buenos Aires

Lockdown is not a quiet affair in Argentina’s capital

Buenos Aires

I wake up at 9am, a little hungover and blind. I stagger to the bathroom, splash icy water over my face, brush my teeth, and cook some coffee on the stove. Then I step outside, onto my balcony. I hadn’t noticed before the virus arrived, but my city apartment is bathed in glorious South American sunshine for a grand total of ten minutes per day. My rooftop terrace, with its sun-drenched swimming pool, hot tub and giant parilla for grilling steak, has been declared out of bounds by my townhouse’s ever-officious consorcio.

My neighbourhood is peculiarly quiet. It’s been this way for a month now. Argentina closed its borders and initiated its draconian cuarentena early. I don’t own a dog, so I’m not allowed outside. Once a week, I shop for groceries, alone. If I don’t wear a facemask, or a welder’s visor, the police impose an 80,000 peso on-the-spot fine. That’s about £1,000 in real money.

As I sip my espresso, I spot a tramp, asleep across the road. At least, I hope he’s asleep. His big, burly body is sprawled across the uneven pavement, his face invisible behind his bushy grey beard. He is barefoot, but he’s wearing a brown suit. I watch for signs of movement as a family of pigeons parachute down and start pecking at him. He doesn’t even flinch. The sun feels warm on my face. Ten minutes pass. Then, without moving his head, the tramp gropes for a sandwich that I hadn’t noticed lying unwrapped on a nearby doorstep. He tears at the sandwich with his teeth and promptly falls back to sleep.

I step back inside, the sunlight vanished west, and am suddenly aware that my girlfriend isn’t here. There’s a strawberry-coloured post-it note slapped to the back of the door: “Gone to do laundry.” I feel a momentary pang of guilt. She’ll be locked down in the laundry room for four hours, at least, on the diktats of the consorcio. Wearing a facemask and latex gloves, she’ll still have to rub down the knobs of every door she’s opened and every machine she’s used with surgical alcohol. There’s nothing I can do, so I read the news on my laptop, make myself angry, then make myself some eggs. I’ve been eating a lot of eggs.

Sometime late morning, after fielding a few phone calls, and screening several others, I look up from my laptop. The woman of a certain age who lives across the street is enjoying the sunshine while clipping her toe nails over the edge of her balcony. She wears her dyed-plum hair in rollers and is sporting one in her extensive range of pink towelled dressing gowns—the only outfit I’ve ever seen her in.

Just then, a large Roadside hawk lands with an impressive thud in the tree outside my window. Its feet are the yellow of a workman’s tools. I snatch my phone off my desk and bound out onto my balcony, hoping to snap a photo or two of the handsome predator, which I’ll send to my father in England. I’m fumbling excitedly with my phone, and I end up taking a picture of the woman in the hair rollers and pink dressing gown. She sees what I’m doing and, leaning forward in her deck chair, peers disapprovingly at me through her ornate railings. Embarrassed, I try pointing at the tree, then waving my arms, to signify a hawk, but she climbs to her feet, clutching feverishly at the lapels of her robe. In her mind, I am now a sicko, a pervert, a typical Englishman, perhaps, caught in the voyeuristic act of trying to preserve the moment her gown falls open. “No, no!” I mouth, now wagging my finger, the only universal gesture I can think of under considerable pressure. She huffs loudly at me, spins on her heel, and scurries back inside her apartment. The hawk swoops away up the street. It is only then that I realise: I am wearing nothing but underpants.

In her mind, I am now a sicko, a pervert, a typical Englishman

At midday I am summoned by phone to the basement. I put some clothes on, attach my facemask, snap too-tight rubber gloves over my hands, and head downwards via the fire stairs. My girlfriend is stood cross-legged in hot pants, busting for the bathroom. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I couldn’t hold it any longer.” We exchange places for five minutes.

When I get back upstairs, I check on the tramp. A woman is standing over him, aggressively offering him shoes. He shrugs at her. She leaves two pairs of decent-looking trainers and one pair of brogues alongside him and is on her way, pulling her trolley. The tramp falls asleep again. When he rolls over, I notice his trousers are pulled down around his knees. I frown. He proceeds to shit all over the pavement.

I don’t tell my girlfriend. When she arrives back upstairs, she’s carrying four loads of freshly tumble-dried and perfectly folded laundry. I make her some coffee and eggs.

A policeman shows up across the street. He radios in and moves the tramp along, who leaves all three pairs of shoes and marches barefoot down the middle of the street. A man pops his head out of the picturesque doorway. He holds his nose and heads back inside, emerging seconds later with a facemask and a hose. He spends twenty minutes flooding the sidewalk in water.

I work all afternoon, when I’m not being interrupted by messages and phone calls, then I return the favour and video call my parents in England via WhatsApp. “I’m all for pandemics,” my ninety-year-old father says from their sofa. I ask him why. He says the BBC have been broadcasting some superb concerts from their classical archives: “So, every cloud has a silver lining.”

My mother talks about flour for fifteen minutes. There’s a nationwide shortage, but her Sri Lankan student somehow secured a giant sack of the stuff, and my mother has been peddling it in sandwich bags to needy seniors all over town. “Like a drug dealer,” she explains.

We move on to anecdotes about grandkids. Mum says, “Your sister made us download Zoom, so that we can read them bedtime stories.” Dad says, “I started them off with Finnegans Wake.” The kids are three and five years old respectively.

At 9pm, as I’m destroying a juicy mound of bife de lomo on the grill pan, porteños across the city emerge onto their balconies to applaud the health workers. We’ve been doing it here, every night, weeks before it became fashionable in the UK, and wherever else. The ritual stirs one or two feelings, even in an extranjero like me. Tonight, the applause is accompanied by the cacophonous sounds of pots and pans being banged unrhythmically with spoons. A common form of protest here, tonight’s cacerolazo, I read in La Nacion, is to protest about the politicians and their general refusal to not be thieving arseholes. Or something like that.

At 9:10pm, the pot-banging stops, which means it’s time for my upstairs neighbour, bless him, to take centre stage. Every night, following the clapping and the banging, he plays the unrequested role of neighbourhood DJ, blasting tunes across the rooftops from a gigantic sound system that he’s erected on his balcony especially for the cuarentena.

His aim, I can but surmise, is to entertain the entire helpless barrio by waking babies, triggering dogs, and rendering it impossible to hear yourself scream at him to shut the hell up, or else. He kicks off tonight’s set with the Argentine national anthem, which famously goes on for two hours, after which he seamlessly transitions, as always, into “I Want To Break Free” by Queen. As if this isn’t bad enough, next comes some reggaeton, the idiotic foulness of which I won’t even try to describe. My walls are shaking. I sit at dinner with my fingers in my ears, staring at my overcooked steak.

Eventually, after what feels like weeks, we eat, drink too much wine, and watch five or six episodes of Seinfeld. Later, I lie awake, wondering what it means that I don’t really miss people. I miss places and things. Restaurants and bars and coffee shops. But not people. Not really. It’s enough that they won’t stop calling me. Which they never much did before all of this started.

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