If today weren’t a special day, Julián would take the keys for one of the agency’s apartments, close the key cupboard, pull the blind down, switch the lights off and leave. That’s what he’s done every night since he split up with Silvia, five months ago. With just a few belongings in his La Plata Student bag which he pretends to use for sports kit. But today’s the birthday of his oldest child, Tomás, and Silvia has ordered him to have Tomás sleep over as part of the celebration, for the first time since they split up. In practice, both his children will sleep with him, Tomás and Anita. Silvia insisted. He didn’t manage to put forward any of the various excuses he’s used over the last few months to avoid giving a specific address. Up until recently that had worked, but not any more. He even seemed to have lost the advantage he used to have in any negotiations with Silvia from the fact that it was she who’d decided their marriage was over. Ever since the day she said to him 'I want you to leave', he’d been pointlessly going round the same loop without understanding what had happened, what was forcing him to undo everything they’d built together over the course of fifteen years. Had they built it together? What exactly had they built? He couldn’t come up with an answer. Even now he didn’t understand and still hoped that Silvia would get over whatever it was that had led her to throw him out. Even if it was another man. And that was why Julián couldn’t bring himself to solve the problem of where to live, which he ought to as a husband who is separated: five months on, he didn’t feel separate. Worse still, he’d thought they would all spend Tomás’s birthday together, him, Silvia and the kids, in their house, the family house. It seemed the ideal occasion to all get back together. But Silvia had apparently thought the exact opposite. She insisted, even telling the kids before him, probably so he had no choice. 'Tonight you’re sleeping at dad’s place.' Without a clue that 'dad’s place' didn’t yet exist. Or that 'dad’s place' wasn’t a fixed address but just a matter of choosing a set of keys from the rental agency’s cupboard and spending each night in a different apartment in his sleeping bag.
He’d been the one to set up the key cupboard, years ago, not long after starting work for the Rosetti agency. When he first arrived, there were two boxes; in one they dumped all the keys to rental flats and in the other, the keys to flats for sale. Up to that point, each set of keys had a transparent plastic key fob with the agency’s logo, where you could slot in a little piece of paper with the relevant address. Julián found this way of working not only careless but also risky. The carelessness was evident in the length of time it took each employee to find the right key in its respective box, an operation which was frequently undertaken in front of the client, to their surprise and annoyance. But the argument with which Julián persuaded the owner of the agency—at that point his immediate boss—was that if someone lost a set of keys in the street, whoever found it could easily burgle the place or commit some kind of crime. 'These days, Rosetti, with the way things are, you don’t want people losing keys that show precisely which door they open,' Julián had said at the tender age of 25, rather more arrogant and self-confident than this insecure man he’s become, twenty years later, despite the fact that the owner has retired, leaving the running of the family agency in his hands 'with total confidence'. Rosetti, back in the distant past when they barely knew one another, and even in spite of the jealously mistrustful stares of those staff who were older and more experienced than Julián, agreed to change the way they’d done things for so long, adopting the method suggested by this new recruit, the youngest of everyone, simply because it made sense. The key cupboard was designed and commissioned by Julián: a glass-topped box, mounted vertically on the wall, with hooks for each set of keys. The red key fobs indicated flats for sale and the blue ones were rental properties. And each fob had a number written on it in permanent marker pen which corresponded to the slip with details of the property, as well as its address. From this key cupboard, Julián had chosen where to spend each night over the last five months, trying never to sleep in the same place twice, not even in the same neighbourhood. To avoid getting attached to a place: he was just passing through, he would be going back to his house.
But right now it seems like he won’t be. And although he might in future, it’s Tomás’s birthday and his children are going to stay over with him. So tonight, when he leaves the office, he can’t just choose the keys to any old flat. He can sleep on the floor of a totally empty room, but the kids can’t. The furnished options are flats for rent, pretty depressing, hurriedly flung together to get maximum return from something that’s not worth the money. Most of the flats for sale are empty. The only apartment which fits the bill for what Julián needs tonight is the one in calle República de la India, that’s why he chooses it. A flat put up for sale three years ago well above its market value, as if the owners didn’t really want to sell it, with a few bits of furniture and tasteful knick-knacks around that they promised to remove as soon as they received a serious offer. A place with little left of the home it once was, but just enough to call it ‘dad’s place’.
If today weren’t a special day, George MacLaughlin would make the most of his trip to Buenos Aires, maybe the last ever, to have a whisky in the bar on calle San Martín where he used to go every afternoon, many moons ago. He’d leave the office but before heading home he’d sit at the bar and, without being asked, the bartender would bring him his scotch on the rocks. A ritual that dated back to when he was a junior employee in the finance department and which carried on until he became managing director of the multinational cereal company where he worked. Then came the transfer to London; his wife, Sonia, wasn’t keen on going with him. His family in Buenos Aires, him over there; it went on for months. A lover. Two. Three. Eventually he met Barbra, fell in love and, when she got pregnant, he decided to make his new family in England official, leaving behind the remains of his Argentinian family: a wife who was like a stranger to him, as he was to her, and a son, Charlie, who made a point of being as far away as possible whenever he came to visit. Barbra’s pregnancy didn’t make it to five months and they didn’t try for another, but by then his new relationship was established. He tried for many years to keep the connection going with Charlie; at first he travelled every month, then every three months, which then became six. He brought him to London to spend the holidays with them. Or he tried to. And of course he sent him punctually the money which was his due, and more besides if Charlie or his mother requested it. For that reason he still can’t understand what he got so badly wrong that this connection never worked. 'What did you do wrong? Everything, dad' his son answered, the last time George saw him, three years before. And he corrected his dad: 'My name’s not Charlie, you’re the only one who calls me that, my name’s Carlos.' That was followed by a brief spate of mutually reproachful emails then finally silence for two years, was it? Until he received in the post an announcement about his son’s wedding, which would take place in under a month. Carlos MacLaughlin, and a woman he’d never heard of, in a Catholic church despite them not being Catholics. Or not having been. Or at least he isn’t one himself, though he can’t speak for Charlie—or Carlos—since he no longer knows who his son prays to, who he falls in love with, what makes him laugh or cry. He asked hesitantly if there would be a reception, if he could contribute in some way. The response was: 'There is a reception but you’re not invited. If you’re happy to come to the religious ceremony, come.' And then the number of a savings account where the couple were receiving wedding 'gifts'.
So he came, and has just been in the church. Sitting in a pew right at the back, watching how his son waited for the bride at the altar. A few people recognized him and came up to say hello, hesitantly, as if they knew something he didn’t. But most of the people around were completely unknown to him. Sonia had very little family and the few remaining on his side, none very close, can’t have been invited. The majority of those around him were young, most likely friends of his son and of the woman soon to be his wife. At last she made her entrance, the bride, on the arm of a man who must have been her father, and she stood beside Charlie. Their six backs formed a row in front of the altar: his son and the bride, her parents, Sonia and a man. The man who is replacing him, the man occupying the place that should be his. It didn’t matter to him whether the man was Sonia’s partner, friend, lover or husband, just that he was beside their son in the space where the father should have been. He thought he’d be able to take it, he thought he’d be able to greet everyone outside the church afterwards. He’d crossed the ocean to be there, to do things properly however hurtful it might be, however much it always left him feeling that he didn’t know how to be a father. He’d crossed the ocean to be one, even if he’d been a terrible father for all these years despite his efforts and willingness. 'It’s always you first, always you', Sonia had criticized him often enough. Was it? Maybe it was. And was that so bad? Couldn’t he start a new family and still carry on being a good father to Charlie? Not even a good father, just a father. He hadn’t been able to. Nor had he managed it that afternoon in the church. He wanted to but he couldn’t. He wants to but he can’t. He can’t even bring himself to call his son what he asked to be called: Carlos. No sooner had Charlie put the ring on his bride’s finger than George got up and left. He walked, not knowing how far, until he couldn’t walk any further. He went past places he remembered very precisely: the house he’d shared with Sonia, his office downtown in el Bajo, the plaza where he used to kick a Manchester United number five ball around with his son (that ball must still be somewhere), the psychologist’s consulting room where they kept trying on and off to improve their relationship when he was no longer living in Buenos Aires, the flat he bought shortly before deciding to stay in London. He’d wanted to have a place of his own where he could be every time he visited, a place that would be more welcoming than a hotel room to share with his son. He picked one opposite the zoo, a district of Buenos Aires that he’d always been fond of; Charlie could see the elephant house from the balcony. In the first few years he went there often. Then gradually less and less. Eventually not at all. The few times he’d returned lately, he thought it was easier to stay in a hotel than enter a place that was unlived-in, stuffy from the lack of ventilation and with odd bits of furniture that were like ghosts of their former selves. He ended up seeing Charlie fleetingly in restaurants here and there, his son always tried to avoid meeting up, or to keep it as brief as possible. Until three years ago, when he decided to sell the apartment, it didn’t make sense to keep it any more. Of all his possessions, it was the only thing that made him sad whenever it came into his head. The mark of what he wanted to be and couldn’t. The mark of his failure. A failure that was as abstract, as intangible as fatherhood itself, as the love of a father for his child. An apartment that testified to his inability to be a father.
Although apparently it’s not so easy to get rid of certain things. The estate agents are telling him he’ll have to lower the asking price.
Perhaps now’s the moment to do it. Maybe now.
Julián bought food from McDonald’s and a chocolate cake. He knows Silvia disapproves of junk food but Tomás and Anita love it, and he’s fed up of behaving how Silvia wants. She wanted him out of the house, she wanted to break up their marriage, she wanted the kids to sleep over with him tonight. And what does he want? Up till yesterday he’d have said: go back home, get back together with Silvia, go back to living with his kids. Today, tonight, he doesn’t know, for the first time he feels confused. He knows, at least, that he wants hamburgers with fries for dinner the first time he spends the night with his kids away from home. From their home. From what was his home. What should he call it? Legally speaking, fifty percent of it is still his. Although the way things are it no longer seems to be. Will it be his again some day? He wonders about that while Anita helps him put the candles on the cake. 'Are you sure we’ll be able to see the elephant in the morning, daddy?' 'Sure, he’s sleeping right now.' Tomás waits for them to arrange his cake, kicking a deflated football that’s lying around, who knows why. And they’re just about to start singing Happy Birthday when Julián realizes he hasn’t got anything to light the candles with. He goes to the kitchen. Searches the drawers. Tries to light the hob but the spark doesn’t work. He realises he’ll have to get the kids out of their pyjamas, get them dressed again and go down to buy matches. Tomás objects, he wants to stay in kicking the ball. 'Anita can go with you, it’s my birthday, I get to choose.' Tomás’s comment reminds him of Silvia, 'I get to choose'. He almost gets cross with Tomás, but decides to let it go and he’s about to take both kids with him as they are, in pyjamas and bare feet, when he hears someone put a key in the lock. He curses his habit from working at the agency of not bolting the door, nor even leaving the keys in the lock on the inside of the door. When he’s showing someone round an apartment there’s no need. But now he’s not showing the apartment, he’s celebrating his son’s birthday there. And quite apart from this oversight he can’t imagine why anyone would want to come in at this time of night. The owner lives in London, he met him once in his life about three years before, when he put the place up for sale. And the man told Julián he was selling it because he wasn’t intending to come back to Argentina. The porter doesn’t have a key either, they took it off him after an argument he had with Rosetti. Silvia? Could it be Silvia, wanting to give them a surprise? He knows that’s impossible. He feels stupid, curses himself for thinking about Silvia whatever the circumstances, however absurd and unlikely. His kids are watching him, waiting for their father to do something, worried, maybe thinking it’s a burglar, or a ghost. Julián finally decides to face up to the situation and goes to the door at the precise moment that it opens, and on the other side is George MacLaughlin. Julián recognizes him because, just like the one time he saw him before, he reminds him of Harrison Ford. It’s him, for sure. How can he be so unlucky that this guy who lives in London and said he wasn’t coming back should pitch up just on Tomás’s birthday? 'Señor MacLaughlin,' he says without the foggiest idea what to say next. MacLaughlin looks at him without saying anything, trying to work out what’s going on. He glances round the flat, the children, the Manchester football that belonged to his son. Julián tries to help him: 'I… I’m…' MacLaughlin, with his eyes fixed on the birthday cake, stops him: 'I know who you are. How’s things?' he says, coming in and shutting the door behind him. 'Who is he, daddy?' asks Anita. Julián stammers. MacLaughlin answers: 'An old acquaintance of your dad’s,' and in passing he kicks the ball over to Tomás, who stops it easily. The man stands in the middle of the room and gazes round his apartment once more; in a circle, as if it were a three-hundred and sixty degree screen. Finally he pulls up a chair and says: 'May I?' Julián nods. He sits down: 'Thanks, I’m really tired.' Tomás, still dribbling the ball between his feet, comes over to the table and sits opposite him. They’re separated by the birthday cake with the unlit candles. 'Have you got any matches?' the boy asks. 'As good as,' says MacLaughlin, taking a silver lighter out of his pocket with which he lights the six little candles one by one.
When all the candles are lit, Anita starts singing Happy Birthday. She realizes she’s the only one singing and sings louder, shouting 'Happy birthday to you.' She looks at her father and at MacLaughlin, clearly expecting them to join in. 'Happy birthday, dear…', Anita shouts even louder, the veins on her neck standing out. MacLaughlin finally joins in. 'Happy birthday', they both repeat. Julián comes over and lifts his daughter up. MacLaughlin gives him a slight nod, as if giving Julián permission to join their song. Julián just manages to sing the last line. 'Happy birthday to you.' They all clap apart from Tomás, who is still sitting with his chin on his hands, staring hard at the flickering candles, concentrating on what three wishes he’s going to make this year.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1960, Claudia Piñeiro is a best-selling author, known internationally for her crime novels. She has won numerous national and international prizes, including the Pepe Carvalho Prize, the LiBeraturpreis for Elena Knows and the prestigious Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize for Las grietas de Jara (A Crack in the Wall). Many of her novels have been adapted for the big screen and she is the scriptwriter of Netflix popular series El Reino. Piñeiro is the third most translated Argentinean author, after Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Her fiction is rooted in the detective novel but has recently turned increasingly political, reflecting the active role she plays in the fight for the legalisation of abortion in Latin America, and for the recognition of employment rights for writers. Her novel Elena Knows was shortlisted was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize.