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An English Gent

by João Gilberto Noll
Translated from Portuguese by
Stefan Tobler
Issue 19 Online Exclusive

On the following morning the Englishman knocked at my door. I woke up. He told me not to be concerned, but that he would take me to the hospital to see if everything was all right. I asked if he could wait a moment while I got changed. We took the 55, getting off in Bloomsbury. We could hear our footsteps, the total silence. I saw on a sign that we were passing the British Museum. I wanted to say something, for example that Rimbaud used to go to the Museum’s library. Not a word came out because I was sure that anything I said would sound like procrastination—the man at my side was worried and did nothing to hide it.

At reception I filled out a form. We entered a ward. The Englishman seemed to be on the staff, so at ease was he inside the hospital. He asked me to sit on an unoccupied bed. I sat. Until the person who seemed to be the doctor arrived. He started to examine me. “It is,” he said with a certain harshness. And he asked me to lie down. He called a nurse. She passed some instruments to him. And the doctor inserted a needle in my vein. I don’t remember ever having felt such satisfaction in my whole life. Not because the medication being introduced had a numbing effect that left me out of it. In the following hours I wouldn’t need to do anything to attribute continuity to things. And was, what’s more, without any fear of my destiny from here on, which would be the normal response in a patient about to undergo a medical procedure in any hospital ward. I just didn’t believe that anything worse could happen, that’s all! I trusted the opposite would be true: that during that whole stay in the hospital the man who was starting to throb inside me and who I still didn’t really know would have a better chance to surface. That when I woke from the anaesthetic I would start to live with another hypothesis about myself and that I would work on it in secret, so that not even my own English friend would be able to notice any change in my character or on the surface of my body. They had kept me there for a reason that I didn’t know. I would use it to be born.

I died for the time I was sedated. Waking up, I saw a nurse with a sour face. She just said that everything was fine and that I could go. They had cleared up some question about my health. What test did they do? I asked. She didn’t understand me or preferred to keep quiet. I exited onto a square in Bloomsbury. I didn’t live in the area, as I would have liked to, but that was where they put me to bed, for how long I didn’t know. Maybe to see if I showed any sign of health problems that would affect whether or not I stayed on the official programme of a Brazilian outside his country. Or would there be an unofficial reason, some by-product of minds with parallel powers? I was stuck in some pulpy spy novel, now inoculated with some substance which would make me even more submissive to them—I, my mind clouded, for that reason in particular, would provide them with a key that I was in no position to predict. I was the idiot in the global citadel. I would serve for every job whose sense was beyond me. But I was not going to cry, to bemoan my lot. Catching a plane back to Brazil wasn’t an option.

The vein where I had been jabbed was hurting, and standing on a corner I flexed my arm, thinking about what to do next. If I returned to the house in Hackney, would it continue to be mine? Would the key in my hands open it? The wind whipped my neck. I turned up the collar of my jacket. If I phoned the Englishman, I’d end up on his damn answering machine. In my eyes, I’d always been from London. There was no other city, no other country. With my own hands I could drown the child that had preferred to go on counting his days rather than drown should a single image of my Brazilian childhood come back. My childhood had passed in these very streets where I was now shivering with cold. Puberty, youth, adulthood until now. Not that I had any special love of all this, which was always the same. It was raining and I was dribbling. I wasn’t managing to keep my saliva in my mouth. Maybe it was some consequence of the hospital procedure I’d been submitted to. I was like a child who doesn’t have the strength to express himself, just dribbles. If I were hungry, cold, thirsty or in pain, none of that would require me to expose myself to anyone, if only because in this country I only had the English guy to expose myself to, and now I had serious doubts as to whether he was still there for me at all. Perhaps I was very sick and they no longer had any use for me. Who knows. But that hypothesis seemed somewhat distant.

That was when I went into the British Museum. Tourists on all sides. I went as far as Egyptian civilization. I admired its remote gods. And I was enchanted by what might be the Museum’s smallest image, minuscule. Apis, the bull god. Exactly what I was to those English who wanted to make me fall ill. Yes, now I truly saw myself in a mirror. They couldn’t get me. I no longer needed the mirrors in public toilets, nor in my own house, I was Apis, I could walk through London if I felt like it—down every alley, prowl round all the parks and could even fast, as they no longer knew what to do.

I could go into a pub, not to inebriate myself or eat something, because I hadn’t put anything in my mouth for days, except for a glass or two of water to keep the bull on his feet. I went into one that was appropriately called The Bloomsbury. Let people look at me, see someone else in me. The fact that I wasn’t eating or drinking, was sitting there looking at nothing, might make someone wake up to me. The waiter could come. I’d say, I just want to rest, I’ve just come from the hospital and I need to rest. All right, there was the chance I’d need to get a mineral water for the waiter to leave me alone. But I’d just stand there, not wanting to sit down. This was what I had been needing in London. The attention of someone who wasn’t that Englishman who had gone missing who knows how many days ago, since I had fallen into that indeterminate unconscious time in the hospital. A drunk came to talk. He complained about his wife. I sipped at my mineral water as if I were savoring the voice directed at me, even if he was not really noticing me in the midst of all the other people. We’re talking about a drunk after all. I received the alcohol on his breath like the only bath I wanted to take. I didn’t interrupt him, didn’t stick my oar in, although I really thought that his wife was a hopeless case. Everything instilled in me the impression of a medieval tavern. There was a sourness in the air, the bodies smelled bad, particularly mine, which had not seen a change of clothes for an unspeakable amount of time. My genitals were itching, my chest, my hairy scalp still burnt from the hair dye. Oh, I had forgotten to check my appearance in a mirror, to see whether I continued to be the same person who had already changed so much, whether I was another person, or whether the hospital had given me back my old features, which I had left in Brazil. Where had I lost the power of evocation? The only thing that concerned me was where I was, the city of London in winter, and in this instant the pub with the drunk recounting with delight the extramarital conquests of his youth, suddenly his daughter dead in the arms of his tearful wife, the convulsion that made him grab my throat as if he were about to strangle me, like this, his finger on my jugular, suddenly my heart on fire—I drop the glass of water, it breaks, everyone looks: this is my only reaction; I’m saved, so lost I’m saved again.

Saved and dribbling. Maybe this lack of salivary control offers no solution. Yes, everyone in the pub is looking at me, just as I wanted. No longer because I knocked over my glass and was about to be strangled. But because I’m dribbling and yet still have the cheek to frequent pubs. I could ask: what makes me into that man who has no civic decorum for a night with possible drinking pals? I could ask, but I don’t for one reason: tomorrow none of this will matter, when I’ll be able to live the life of that man who is still lying in the Bloomsbury hospital bed, who stayed there as I made this little escape, motivated by the nurse’s bad intentions. There lies a part of me that has stopped, without any thought of controlling the world or what goes on inside itself, a waiting stone. I’ll go back in the dead of night, I’ll lift up the sheet and lie down. And when the Englishman comes back, I’ll see that the experiment has worked. I’ll be that man again, ready to hold forth in public spaces on the questions that afflict his students who stubbornly refuse to show themselves.

João Gilberto Noll (1946–2017) is the author of nearly twenty books. His work appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he was a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of more than ten awards in all, he died in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the age of 70.  
Translator
Stefan Tobler is a literary translator from Portuguese and German. His translations include Água Viva by Clarice Lispector (for New Directions and Penguin Classics UK) and work by the contemporary Brazilian poet Antônio Moura (for Arc). In 2011 he founded the U.K.’s And Other Stories (www.andotherstories.org), a press supported and guided by circles of readers, writers, and translators.