My meeting with Maria Cristina was scheduled for Aguero in Recoleta, but after a tortuous taxi journey blocked by demonstrations on Av 9 de Julio, I was now running late.
Whilst waiting at lights, I dashed to a call box to rearrange our venue. Maria Cristina’s voice was feint on the bad line, but I gathered she was about to leave for Recoleta cemetery, our default meeting place. “Let’s meet there, then”, I suggested, and the line went dead.
“Change that to the cemetery”, I instructed the cab driver. “Makes no difference to me, senor, but I will have to drop you off at Av Manuel Quintana because Junin is closed”, he replied as we turn into Juncal, now making up time.
As we arrive outside La Biela, one of Buenos Aires most iconic cafes, I slip a fistfull of notes into the cab driver’s hand for his trouble. Cutting by the late afternoon diners, the British post box and the Arbol Patrimonio Historico - the largest, oldest gum tree in Buenos Aires - I walk briskly across the park towards the cemetery steps, skirting the tango dancers who are performing stage effects for tourists.
Twenty minutes later the meeting is over. It has gone pretty much to plan, and we have completed our business. As Maria Cristina walks off towards the entrance, her blond hair catching the breeze, a call from a cemetery cat cuts the early evening air. I peer down a passageway lined with tombs in the direction from which the sound came. Something moves or darts, as if in flight; probably the cat, or maybe just the illusion of light from the street as it plays against the trees. I think no more of it.
It is 5 minutes later that I descend the marble steps. The tour guides have gone home leaving the attendants to rattle their keys as they prepare for their lockup rounds. Quitting the cemetery I retrace my steps across the park, passing a lone street performer. He has been unable to access the premiere pitches on Junin for which the traders compete. A battered wheelchair has been shrunken to accommodate his emaciated frame, his bent feet barely reaching the footrests. He will be in his twenties, but bearing a much greater age, To ward off the evening chill a wool hat is pulled down across his forehead. In his twisted arms he cradles a tiny harmonica. He is totally alone - but for the music, which falters as he struggles a nod for the 100 peso note I drop into his empty tin.
After paying the bill, I sprinted out of Cafe Paulin, looking in both directions to hopefully catch a glimpse of his tall figure amongst the crowd. Walking off towards 9 de Julio he hailed a passing taxi. Before I knew it, before even thinking it through, I was telling my taxi driver to ‘Follow that cab’, which seemed to entertain him because as soon as I closed the door, he jetted off, swirling through the cars on the world’s largest avenue.
We were headed north, the Jacarandas were in bloom and 9 de Julio was in a purple haze, which made all of this seem even more dream-like. He slipped out of his cab at a red light, jumped into a phone booth and within a minute he climbed back into the taxi which took a sudden left turn onto Juncal. My driver turned to me ‘Si si, seguimos! Keep following him’, I screeched.
His cab came to a sudden stop by the park opposite the renowned Recoleta cemetery. What was he doing here? Not exactly the place for a romantic rendez-vous. I hand the driver his well deserved pesos and slip out the back door, squatting below the top of my taxi only to realize that I was showing my not so good side to the afternoon cocktailers at La Biela, one of my favourite cafes in the city. I turn around to give an apologetic head nod, acknowledged by friendly smiles and some not so charitable smirks.
Bond races across the park, I run to keep up with him whisking by the gum tree and the tangeros performing deep ganchos to a crowd of cheering tourists.
He stops at the entrance of the cemetery, glances at his watch then casually walks in. I continue to follow, trying to draw as little attention as possible by blending in with the crowds of tourists snapping away at the marble statues of the city’s long dead Aristocracy and desperately seeking out the famous Duarte grave.
His pace is brisk; he knows where he’s going. I follow him from a distance. I start wondering if I’m not in over my head. What if I see something I shouldn’t see? Why am I here? Then a gentle pat on the shoulder jolts me from my thoughts, ‘Excuse me Miss, will you take a picture of us,’ a woman with a thick southern US accent asks, as she hands me her camera giving me not much choice in the matter. ‘Um sure,’ I answer taking the camera and a snap away before even warning them. I throw the camera back her way and dash to catch up with Bond.
He walks away from the crowds; past poor Rufina Cambeceres’ grave, past Mitre, past Quiriga and Sarmiento’s graves, who were ironically bound more in death than they had ever been in life. He takes a quick right at Luis Angle Firpo’s Art Deco mausoleum, towards the back of the cemetery, in the directions of the forgotten graves, the ones that no one but the cats come to visit.
I duck between two crumbling crypts to watch. A woman is waiting for him. She wears an elegant black trench coat and a black cloche hat which conceals her face but allows her blond hair drape over her shoulders. I can’t hear what they’re saying but she seems concerned. Bond takes hold of her hands and whispers something in her ear. She nods, as if agreeing, taking a key out of her purse which she hands to Bond. They both look about them, making sure that no one is watching. It’s odd, for no tourists visit this part of the cemetery.
With the key in his right hand, Bond goes to the side of one of the disintegrating graves - I can’t make out the name from where I stand - he opens the metal gate and slips inside. What is he doing here? Seconds later he exits carrying a metal box which he hands to the woman. Together they open the box. He takes out a green envelope. She takes the box and the key.
They part with a lingering hug to walk off in opposing directions. I step into the shadows between the crypts so as to conceal myself completely. As I do so, my heel connects with the tail of a snoozing cemetery cat which shrieks out in pain. Bond spins around. I duck. He remains still and, although I’m out of breath, I try to slow my breathing so as not to make a sound. He pauses, looks about him for a few seconds, and then walks off again. I get up and follow him as he makes his way out of the cemetery back towards the park.
From my concealed spot behind the roots of the gum tree, I see him stop, open the envelope and read it’s content. Returning a sheet of folded paper to the envelope, Bond steps towards a nearby figure hunched in a wheelchair, drops something in his tin, then hurriedly turns away to hail a taxi. I attempt to follow, but know that I am too late to catch him. So walk towards the figure. I hear feint music, a tango almost lost on a breeze in the trees. On reaching him, I see that he is a young blind boy, hunched over a tiny harmonica. As I pass I glance into his tin and notice a 100 peso note - but there is also something else there. It is the green envelope that was in Bond’s hands but moments ago. The one retrieved from the tomb in Recoleta cemetery. I stop, open my purse and take out a 50 peso note. Stepping back a pace I reach into the tin, dropping the bank note, whilst deftly lifting the envelope. It’s now mine. But what am I to do with it?
“She crosses her legs, clings to the bar rail, and swings her stool towards me.”
The metal framed stools of Cafe Paulin are bolted so close together that Moneypenny’s knees instantly touch mine. Accidental contact often solicits a quick ‘sorry’ and readjustment; but at this moment they remain firmly against me. I glance down, noting their youthful smoothness, and the shortness of her skirt. Moneypenny seems animated. She bursts with conversational energy. Half listening, I glance around the bar.
The place is packed, the other customers mainly city office workers. It is like an ants nest, streams of people coming and going, waiters calling orders to each other with barely room for them to pass.
Cafe Paulin is about twice the width of a railway carriage. And that is not where the similarity ends. Down the centre, full length, is a narrow servery giving on to left and right. On a raised dais within the servery stand the waiters in their olive cross buttoned tunics. To each side of the servery are sheer glass shelves about a foot in width. These are the tracks, with two rows of stools adjacent like railway sleepers.
Another plate passes along the glass counter at speed, apparently out of control. It appears to spin, but is docked securely into a waiter's hand at the other end of the bar.
“Did you enjoy the chocolates”, I ask with a smile, returning my attention to Moneypenny. “Now, I thought you only liked Swiss truffles?”, I add inquiringly. “I took them with me to Sabrina’s”, she replies, “Bond, she recognised them instantly”. “I am sure she still has a soft spot for you, Mr Bond”.
Something that I don’t quite understand tells me that I don’t want our lunch date to be about Sabrina. Is Moneypenny really interested in what transpired between us over twenty years ago? If so, why? And why do I constantly wish to move the focus back to the present - this moment with Moneypenny?
After a shile I glance at the Bremont secured to my left wrist. It shows that I am running late for an appointment with my lawyer Maria Cristina, a colleague from a previous life.
Moneypenny picks up the last piece of pizza and takes a bite. Her wine glass is empty and she glances around, as if to check that she has said all that she was intent to say.
I take a last sip from my small glass of bourbon - you can never get Martini at Paulin - and reflect for a second on the ‘Sabrina days’ that had seemed so distant until today; half forgotten memories that had not withstood the test of time.
Lifting the bill from where I slid it against the glass countertop, Moneypenny reaches out two fingers to seize it from my grasp. “My treat, I’ll pay for the cupboard this time. Next time, take me somewhere swish where we have more room”, she adds. With that she swings on her stool again, exposing an iridescent leg as she lets her toes slip to the floor. I watch her go as she walks to the cashpoint to tender her card.
I swing my stool to greet him with the customary Porteño one cheek kiss. The place is too small for me to actually get up, so I stay on my stool and lean towards him which makes me suddenly aware of the fact that a short summer skirt was a poor wardrobe choice for a place like this, but it was the only acceptable thing I could find at Sabrina’s.
‘What sort of gentleman arranges a lunch date in a cafe the size of a cupboard?’ I said turning my stool away from him and trying to cross my legs as elegantly as possible in a 2 cm radius. ‘What kind of lady wears a skirt like that in a place like this?,’ he answered back, taking advantage of the fact that I was struggling to sit properly. ‘And I never said I was a gentleman,’ he added.
‘Right, I ordered us a pizza and some wine for me. I wasn’t sure what your poison of choice was at this hour, so you’ll have to order it yourself’, I told him. He then barely turned his head, raised his hand, motioned the waiter at the back of the bar and ‘signed’ something to him to which the waiter gave an approving head nod. He knew sign language?
‘What did you say to him, and I didn’t know you knew sign language!’ I exclaimed. ‘I simply asked for my usual drink, and yes I can sign, and do many other things you couldn’t even imagine,’ he replied in his suave voice. I suddenly felt a rush a blood to my cheeks, was I blushing? Was he flirting with me?
‘Right old girl, so I couldn’t help but notice a missing box of Belgian Pralines this morning. You took them to her didn’t you?,’ he asked inquisitively. ‘Ah I knew it! Of course - you noticed the missing box, the one you were trying so hard to be indifferent to. Yes I took them with me and she recognised them instantly,’ I teasingly replied, feeling as if I had information he desperately wanted me to divulge.
He hesitated to say anything else, but I could tell he was curious. ‘She’s just like you though, she didn’t budge except to speak in riddles and metaphors. The two of you are very much alike you know. You say so much without saying anything, like a fortune cookie. I’m usually more confused after you answer my questions than before I even ask them,’ I affirmed as if wanting some clarification from him now.
‘Old girl, the chocolates are ancient, like Sabrina and my story…..’ he started... ‘Oh my God that’s exactly what she said. Come on, you guys are reading from the same script, this can’t be. Spare me the ‘we’re old’ and ‘it’s an old story’ and just tell me everything. And then go see her,’ I interrupted.
‘I hate being interrupted, and now our times is up,’ he said looking at his watch which seemed to have so many dials that it could tell the time at all four corners of the earth. ‘I have another appointment and I’m late.’ ‘I’m going to have to pick up the bill and leave you to finish that second glass of wine on your own,’ he said in a continuous and firm way, not giving me a chance to contradict him.
‘Fine, go to your next appointment, I’ll make sure to schedule our next appointment when you have more time. I’ll take care of the bill and I won’t take any contradiction on the matter. Go, I’ll be fine, this is my type of place anyway.’
‘I bet it is old girl,’ he replied as he got up to leave. ‘Oh and I’m going to Canning tonight if you’re looking for something to do, I’ll be the one twirling around the dance floor,’ I shouted over the crowd of voices and clinking of cutlery. He nodded back and walked from the door into the street.
Another appointment ? I wonder where he’s going? Should I follow him?
You know the feeling. Dancing in Buenos Aires - supper, milonga, dawn, medialunas, coffee and bed - with an early morning breeze lifting the curtains in gentle swirls, birdsong from the terrace, maybe the distant sound of early morning traffic.
I feel across the bed to find a crisp unturned sheet. Sitting up I rest on an arm, reach for my spectacles and survey the room. Her shoes, dropped casually by the patio doors, are gone; the dance bag is no longer hanging from the back of the sofa where I half expected her to be. I glance through to the terrace. She is not there. The bird has flown.
Rising, I find her note on the table, “Dear Bond, thanks for the dances, the Talisker, the coffee and the laughter”. I look across to the countertop and see that the box of chocolates has disappeared, leaving two empty wrappers.
I lie back and breathe in warm air, now approaching midday. What is it about Moneypenny? Enigma? No, Moneypenny is simple and straightforward. Desire? I trust not for she is just a young woman embarking on her new life of tango. Loneliness? Perhaps. In Buenos Aires I am surrounded by acquaintances but it is difficult to trust others - to release the emotional shutters that have protected my professional life. I reflect back to dark memories that disturbed my sleep. Perhaps Moneypenny fulfils that particular need.
Reaching for my phone I find the usual new messages, but one in particular catches my attention. ‘Moneypenny here. Got your number from your phone, hope you don’t mind. You up for lunch?’
There is still an inch of coffee left, and at 600 US dollars per pound it cannot be wasted. Clutching a cool mug and a now crusty medialuna, I wander out to the terrace. The hammock still swings in the breeze; the scent of Jasmine in the garden reminds me of her perfume. I reach into my robe for my phone.
Noon, and I have left it too late to walk, so I hail a taxi in Santa Fe I and arrive at Sarmiento 635 eight minutes later. The doorway to Cafe Paulin gives little hint of what lays behind. I negotiate the till area and peer down two tight ailes. Moneypenny has already arrived and taken a stool on the left side half way along the glass-topped bar. As I make my way towards her a plate of pizza comes spinning along the glass surface, kept in place by the mahogany flanges. A waiter in olive green cross-buttoned tunic and fawn floppy hat gathers it up in one movement, and with a pirouette places it before a customer to his right.
“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”, I say in greeting. Moneypenny scowls, “What sort of gentleman arranges a lunch date in a cafe the size of a cupboard?”, she rejoins as she crosses her legs, clings to the bar rail, and swings her stool towards me.
The morning light, usually so welcome, almost feels like an assult this morning. All I want is for someone to turn the switch off, but that’s obviously pointless, so I might as well get up.
Bond is nowhere in sight, he must have gone back inside. As I peek into his room, I see his long legs stretched out on the bed which seems completely undisturbed by his presence as if he was floating on it rather than laying on top of it; he seems to be in a deep meditation rather than sleep.
I’m not going to bother him, I’m not really sure what I would say or I would act at this point, I am still unsure of what was happening between us and on the 3.4 minutes of sleep I was on, there was no way I could think reasonably, so I decide that it’s best to just go.
I look around to room to make sure that all traces of my presence have disappeared, shoes, dance bag, I wash the glass which so elegantly delivered my Port Ruighe last night, I finish off the coffee, even cold this coffee it is better than anything I’ve ever tasted. Then on the counter I spot the infamous box of chocolate, the unmistakable black Marcolini pralines. I have an idea, I don’t think he’ll miss it and I know someone who they might interest.
I discreetly make my way towards to door thinking that it’s wrong to just leave without a word, so I scan the room for paper and something to write with, when I spot his gold Parker fountain pen and the royal crested stack on paper on his desk: ‘Dear James’, no ‘Dear Bond’ ‘thank you for a lovely evening’…. NO, more casual, ‘thanks for the dances, the Talisker, the coffee and the laughter’. ‘MP’
‘San Telmo por favor’, I tell the taxi driver as we begin our rollercoaster ride towards the other end of the city. The streets are empty, Buenos Aires is still asleep, this is really the only moment when one can feel a sense of peace driving through the city.
‘Good morning, or are you still on last night’s time’, Sabrina says to me, as she opens the door with one hand and holding her morning coffee with the other, ‘Come inside’ she adds, she’s wearing her red silk Carine Gilson bathrobe, her hair is down, which it never is, giving her such a different appearance, almost like an amazon temptress. I could spot the unmade bed and the second coffee cup on the table which confirms that she did not wake up alone this morning, but also that she hadn’t allowed anyone to disturb her morning routine for too long either.
‘Can I get a cup of that? And take a shower?’ I ask hoping she sees my needing her as a truce after our little argument last night when I did not take her advice and almost did something very stupid. Thank God there was someone there who was not only stupider than me but much faster. I should send Lucia a thank you note . ‘Go, I’ll make you something to eat.’ she said, acknowledging my plea for peace.
The cold water feels invigorating as it trickles it’s way down my body and slowly I start to wake up from what seemed to be a dream, the tangos, Alvaro, pizza, Bond, did it really all happen in one night?
‘I won’t ask you what happened, because I don’t want to know, but I will tell you this; you’re too smart and too good a dancer to get distracted by frivolities. Everything is yours for the taking, but you need to want it and you need to focus,’ she said almost gloatingly, as she poured my coffee into the spare cup. She must have heard about Lucia and Alvaro and she must think it bothers me, but mostly she’s just thinking of how she warned me and how I wouldn’t listen to her.
‘I know, and thank you for not asking, but my night last night didn’t quite turn out like I thought it would,’ I responded pulling the box of chocolates out of my bag and placing them on the table.
She paused when she saw it, she recognised it, I was sure of it, it didn’t seem to shock her, she just stared at it as if in a trance. ‘Would you like some chocolate? I smirkingly asked.
‘Those things are older than you; I wouldn’t go near them if they were offered on a gold plate,’ she responded trying to sound indiferent.
‘He kept them all this time, I’m sure it means something. Why won’t you tell me about the two of you, and why won’t you go see him. I really think he still loves you.’ I said, almost pleading with her. ‘You’re too romantic, and too curious for your own good. He and I are like those chocolates, maybe once something irresistible or even exotic, but are now well beyond their due date. So much has happened to us that we’re both covered in the white powdery due that tells you we’re not good anymore,’ she responded.
‘You’re both so poetic, but he kept them all this time…. I don’t know but it has to mean something. Why would anyone keep a box of chocolate for like 75 years?’ I teased, knowing full well it wasn’t even half that much time.
‘Careful or you won’t get any coffee.’ she teased back. ‘Well the way you talk about yourself, is as if you were young in Victorian times. How old was the man you spent the night with if you’re so covered in white powder that you’re too old to go Bond but not too old for whoever was here last night?’ I asked inquisitively. I was also curious about whom she had spent the night with.
Suddenly, I became very aware of the time and of the fact that I had told Bond to meet me for lunch in 30 minutes.
‘I have to run, thank you for coffee, I’ll see you later. Un beso,’ and I was out the door before she could say anything else.
‘I’m not sure, he’s good for you, you know. Come back here tonight mi querida,’ she shouted with a smile on her face.
‘Oh and by the way, I had two of the chocolates, and they still taste great! You should try one!’
I ran to get there on time, up Florida, between the vendors and the herds of shoppers, making my way to Sarmiento. Why am I running? He can wait a few minutes can’t he? Or was it me that couldn’t wait?
He’s not here yet, I’ll just make my way to my favourite seat, which is surprisingly available, and wait for him. What was it about him and Sabrina and where I am in the midst of all this; it’s almost as if both had laid a claim on me and were using me, in a very agreeable way, to outdo each other. Maybe I’ll strike up the courage to ask him, I tell myself. A plate of pizza slides past me at the speed of light, and I notice Bond walk in.
The sun is just peeping over Plaza San Martin, casting small pools of Sunday morning light, and long sharp shadows. I sit in the old battered armchair that Raul had pulled on the terrace and forgotten to take back inside. Moneypenny swings in a hammock, her bare feet against one of the low parapets. Her left knee is raised, showing a creamy leg.
“Bond, did you really get those chocolates from Sabrina?”, she asks naively. “Of course I did; you yourself commented on the white bloom”, I reply. There is another moment’s pause whilst she thinks. I sense her mind turning, but she remains silent and pushes the hammock with her free foot.
Earlier, with two tumblers of Port Ruighe, we had danced to Di Sarli, Biagi, D’Agostino, Rodriguez, finishing with Laurenz, the most romantic of the Golden Age orquestas. Moneypenny had slipped her left arm lazily around my shoulder and fell into a deep embrace. Clearly, she was not used to drinking Talisker.
“Right, old girl”, I prompted as the stylus ground against the edge of the vinyl, “I think it is time for coffee and juice”. “Here, catch”, I added throwing her an orange and pointing to the juicer on the countertop. Was Moneypenny over-romanticising the evening? There always was that danger. And, more to the point, was she in fact in danger from me?
I shrugged the thoughts away from my mind, ignored the prime Sumatran Kopi Luwak coffee beans (which I suspected she’d hate) in favour of Panamanian Hacienda La Esmeralda, with its superb undertones of chocolate and fruit - more befitting to the palate of a young girl.
“May we take breakfast on the terrace?”, she asked, “It’s lovely out there”. “Of course, if that is your wish old girl”, I replied. “You take the medialunas and I’ll bring the coffee”. “No milk, I’m afraid - but with this coffee it would be a crime to add anything other than the sparkle in your eyes”, I added.
And so we are here in the garden as dawn breaks and the Torre de los Ingleses chimes the hour. Me in my chair, Moneypenny in front, wrapped in her private thoughts. There is something peaceful about the moment. I have not yet told her why she is here. She does not know my past. ‘Maybe it’s best that way’, I say to myself, as I reflect on darker thoughts.
‘I don’t take it with milk, I like it black and strong,’’ I replied, while throwing the orange back his way. Did he really think I would run to the juicer to make him a fresh glass? ‘And why do you call me old girl?’ I asked. ‘Would you prefer I call you young girl?’, he responds. ‘No, but old girl sounds like you’re talking about a car or your dog.’ I said realizing how silly I was starting to sound.
‘Right, enough of this frivolity, old girl, let’s go to the terrace and have our coffee in peace,’ he said mockingly.
I took a sip of the coffee and a bite from the the orange I had peeled for myself. Neither of us had relented on the subject of pressing the juice and so neither of us would be having a glass of fresh juice this morning. The orange was fresh and sweet, the perfect contrast to the hot, slightly bitter coffee. I swung in the hammock, my leg hanging off to the side absorbing the early sun’s heat, which slowly flowed through my body. I gazed at the sky and started imagining a grand party in an even grander Palace.
“Bond, did you really get those chocolates from that party with Sabrina?”, I asked, taking him by surprise. “Of course I did; you yourself commented on the bloom”, he replied, barely looking up from his morning Herald.
Really? Why had he kept them for so long? Did they reminded him of their first meeting? Or was he just teasing and they’re really leftover from his last trip to Europe? ‘So why have you kept them for so long?’ I dared to ask. ‘Because, just like you Monneypenny, I prefer Swiss chocolate,’ he replied with a hint of sarcasm, looking at me directly.
Our gazes met - just like last night when I got out of the taxi. I’m not sure how to read him. Why was I here? What was last night about - was it an attempt at the seduction? And if so, an attempt on whose side? Last night was still a little hazy - we started dancing, he commented on the tango singers and their styles as if to know who they were was as essential to dancing tango as the steps themselves. I had drifted away to the sounds of Biagi and D’Agostino and the gentle swaying of his body; and before I knew it, it was morning.
Was romance in the cards for us? I know he likes me, but then again he likes women, especially younger women. Was this all I was to him? He hadn’t really tried to romance me last night; and I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed.
I get up and sit next to him. ‘I thought they stopped distributing the BA Herald’, I said looking at his newspaper, ‘They have.’ he responded with his usual hint of mysteriousness. The night is catching up with me and suddenly I feel an uncontrollable urge to rest my head…. For just one little minute.
The night was still young - but thinking about it with a bit more realism - I am certainly not. “Moneypenny, how about joining me for a Talisker Port Ruighe malt?” “I know the only place here in Buenos Aires where you can taste it”.
“Oh, and where might that be, James?”, she replied with teasing informality, emphasising my first name.
An advantage of age and distinction is that night taxis tend to stop when you wave, especially when dressed for a milonga, rather than driving by looking for a better fare. Holding the cab door for Moneypenny, she dived in, and I followed more conservatively and with a little more decorum. “Recoleta - Santa Fe 690”, I say.
Palacio Haedo was built in 1860 and restored in 1923, making it one of the oldest buildings in Buenos Aires. It certainly retains all of its original features as befitting a national historic monument - including unfortunately, the plumbing and heating in my grace-and-favour apartment provided by Her Majesty’s government.
As we enter Moneypenny glances around her with that quick bird-like manner and whistles quietly. “Wow, Mr Bond, do you really live here? It looks just like a museum!” Well, in that I live here, that is precisely what it must be”, I quip as I slam the lattice doors to the lift and it jerks into motion to ascend.
“Yes, the Ministry - National Parks or something - is housed down below, but somehow they forgot all about the top floor apartment and the roof garden”. “Fortunately for me, they also neglected to retire Raul the gardener. He lives in the basement with Cleo his cat”.
Rosa, the maid, has been away visiting relatives in Cordoba, so on our arrival the main room is still strewn with books and papers where I left them. As we enter and before I can find the switch, a column of moonlight catches a breath of rising dust. For a moment Moneypenny stands and stares as if bewitched.
“Come along, old girl, let’s try this malt”, I offer, just to break the spell. “Its double matured in port casks, very Gaelic, and not a lot of it leaves Skye, let alone arrives in Buenos Aires”. “How do you take it?...a little water, I suggest”.
Moneypenny crosses to the radiogram and picks up the cover of an old vinyl LP which she turns in her hands. “Any tango, Mr Bond?”, she calls as I open a window to the terrace. “Di Sarli if you can find it”, I rejoin. “Oh, and in the cupboard I think you might find a packet of Belgium pralines that were stolen from a party I once attended”. “Be a good girl and fetch them too”.
I’m not really sure I should follow Mr Bond, and I’m even less sure about what Talisker Port Ruighe is, but it sounds like it’s meant to impress ne, not that malt is really going to do the trick but I guess tonight is as good a night as any to try it.
I’m always impressed with how easily he is able to get a taxi. It’s as if they’re trained to distinguish between those who have money and those who don’t, and even more so those who give good tips and those who don’t. Mr Bond is and does both. ‘Recoleta, something (I can’t remember) Santa Fe, Palacio Haedo’, he says to the driver in his very perfect British English he is always so proud of.
The taxi sets course towards the Palacio. I remember this area from my first visit to Buenos Aires when I took a historical walking tour of the city. It’s near Plaza San Martin, in honour of José Francisco de San Martin, the liberator of the southern part of South America (that’s a lot of south) from the Spanish Empire. There is a grand statue of him in the center, which should point to his famous crossing of the Andes when he met his Northern counterpart, Simon Bolivar. But when the city was being remodelled and large avenues were constructed around the famous Liberator, his statue was turned ‘because it looked better pointing in that direction’, according to my guide.
This parc and the elements around it embody so many of the contradictions which make the Porteño city what it it. There is a Maldivas war memorial right in front of the Torre de los Ingleses, which is an odd ‘Big Ben’-like tower the British gave Argentina to congratulate her on her independence. Buenos Aires once did a survey on what the people considered the best and worst building in the city, and one building won both votes, that building lies in this square as well.
The taxi suddenly came to a halt, we had arrived and I abruptly woke from my daydream r to find Mr. Bond holding the taxi door open and extending his arm to help me out. As I looked up to reach for his hand, our eyes met in a way they had never met before and I started thinking about how many women got escorted to his apartment in this very same manner throughout the years. His reputation as an irresistible seductor had impressed even the most porteño of porteños, who, as it is well known, could hold their own when it came to romantic liaisons.
What was I doing here? It had actually never occured to me that I could one day just be another ‘Bond-girl’. Why hadn’t it occurred to me actually? He was still handsome and certainly knew how to charm a woman, he even managed to seduce the un-seducible Sabrina once, who despite her many lovers and admirers, has never gotten over him. He and I weren’t friends in the conventional way, but still it had occurred to me that it could go in this direction for some reason.
Him: ‘I’m not going to keep my hand out all night you know.’
Me: ‘Oh sorry, right, sorry.’ I clumsily replied.
Him: ‘Top floor, just wait until you see the view, and in daylight I’ll show you the garden.
Daylight, was I staying that long? Mind you it was nearing 4 am, I guess we didn’t have long to wait. He opened the door to his apartment and it was as if I had stepped into a black and white hollywood movie where my part would be played by Vivian Leigh or Audrey Hepburn and his would have been played by himself (or yes of course Sean Connery).
Me: ‘It’s messier than I expected’ I said, staring at the piles of papers and leather-bound books which almost fully covered the round persian carpet in front of the large brown Chesterfield that sat in the middle of the room. ‘I also half expected a live-in buttler to open the door.’
Him: ‘He died and the maid is on holiday, come along now, this malt won’t drink itself. How do you take it?...a little water’ he suggested.
Me: ‘With crushed ice, the equivalent of an ice cube, but crushed.’ I replied.
Him: ‘Right a little water it is then.’
He’s insufferable sometimes but yet I always come back for more. I looked around the room, it was a large living room, it had large windows that let in the moonlight which gave the art-nouveau arches on the mirror and the elegant marble fireplace on which it stood, a light lustre which almost made them look frozen, maybe frozen in time, like the rest of the apartment and maybe a little like Mr Bond himself. The clicking of my shoes against the marble and hardwood floors made me self conscious with every step I took; so I stood still in almost awe of this dream-like place I had entered. I could hear distant music, laughter and clinking of champagne glasses which must have resided in these walls from years ago.
My eye caught a gramophone in the corner and I slowly made my way towards it and looked at the collection of vinyl records.
Me: ‘A tango, Mr Bond?’ I asked.
Mr Bond: ‘Di Sarli if you can find it”, he responded “Oh, and in the cupboard I think you might find a packet of Belgium pralines that were stolen from a party I once attended. Be a good girl and fetch them too.’
Me: ‘I really prefer Swiss chocolate actually, so I won’t bother fetching anything you can do it yourself and be a good boy about it.’ He really was condescending sometimes. ‘Also, I’m not sure I want old belgian pralines from a fictitious party, they’ve probably gone sour by now after so many years’, I responded, ever so slightly alluding to his age and more so our difference in age.
He didn’t answer, he just smiled and moved towards me holding two glasses of scotch with a drop on water in each.
Me: ‘I thought I had asked for crushed ice? Why ask me what I want if you’ll just ignore it?
Him: ‘Just try it, you’ll love it.
Me: What shall we drink to?”
Him: ‘This malt is so good and it doesn’t require a toast. You drinking it is enough.’
So we drank, put our glasses down and began to tango to Di Sarli, and in his embrace I found comfort again. We weren’t friends in the conventional way, but I also wasn’t going to be a Bond-girl in the conventional way. Our’s was a story of tango. At least for now.
If Moneypenny were a bird, she would be one of those little, bright finches that live on the edge of the forest, that dart out, flutter their wings, peck at a flower, dance, sing a phrase, then dart back for cover.
It was a surprise to see her as she walked into Guerrin; but Moneypenny always tends to be surprising. Was her choice of Guerrin accidental, for it was too long for her to have followed me there? Ciudad Autonoma de Buenos Aires, with a population of nearly three million is in fact a small place. Yet with a density of thirteen and a half thousand people per square kilometer, it is quite hard to bump into friends. Without success I wracked my mind to remember ever telling her that Guerrin was on my list of favourite haunts.
When she returned from the banos Moneypenny was composed, the tear and its tell-tale run of mascara having been wiped expertly away. Her mood was jaunty as she allowed her free hand to float across my smooth head, but beneath her mood I sensed a darker side.
“So Moneypenny, tell me about it”, I ventured, hoping to draw her out. “Have some moscato, be a good girl and tell Mr Bond all”, I added, not thinking how condescending this sounded until the words were out of my mouth. I glanced at her brow, then to her lips looking for disapproval. But having recovered her composure, she was not for revelation of any thoughts, let alone feelings.
That moment a waiter clattered by with a tray of clinking glasses and bottles, and the opportunity to explore the tear was lost. “I didn’t know you frequented Guerrin”, I said after a short pause. “I don’t...it's just...well never mind”, she replied, bending to stroke the arch of her foot from which she had slipped a shoe. “Now, what are we eating?”, she enquired, turning the menu sheet in her dainty hands. “This looks good”, she said, pointing to the jamon queso y cebolla pizza. “Mozo” she called to the only good-looking waiter at our end of the salon, at which he turned and smiled a youthful smile that reminds you of your age.
“Tell me about you and Sabrina”, she added almost as an afterthought, slipping in the question without so much as a moment’s warning. “Moneypenny, are you quizzing my reckless past?”, I quipped, feeling the spotlight change from my intrusion to her’s. “Yes, actually, I am”, she replied. “It’s an old story, and a long one I warn you”, I said, seeking to distract her once more; but she was not for diverting.
So, with hot pizza, cold Quilmes, tepid moscato, and the buzz of Guerrin life all around us, I told all.
I took a bite of pizza and washed it down with some Moscato, it was sweet and soft and created the perfect contrast to the salty hot pizza, which was heavy and perfect for my empty stomach which had been dancing for 5 hours. I had food, I had drink, (I had just peed) and now nothing could divert my attention from the story I had wanted to hear for so long. Sabrina never budged on the subject; all I had were small fragments of their story pieced together from hundreds of conversations, but never the full story, like a roman mosaic unearthed one centimeter at a time, but now he was going to tell me everything! Or not - but it’ll be more than I’ve gotten so far.
Mr Bond: ‘I won’t tell you everything, you know, not the parts that disgrace me, I don’t want to ruin my perfect image.’
Me: ‘There’s no risk of that, your perfect image was shattered when you couldn’t quite get the step during our last class, so go ahead and tell it all.’
Mr Bond: ‘Sometimes you’re too clever for your own good you know, Moneypenny, except when it comes to men.’
Me: ‘And you’re too mysterious for your own good, you need to let go a little…. .’
Mr Bond: ‘Well, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of wisdom, it was an age of foolishness….. Once upon a time in a mysterious land of endless beauty and infamous danger…... It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen…Ah Sabrina, light of my life, fire of my loins…. Is that the type of start you had in mind? Are you expecting a grand story? What if it’s dull? What if our problems turn out to be just like everyone else’s?’
Me: ‘No, I’ve already taken many literature classes, I don’t need the start of every Dickens, Nabokov, Orwell and whatever novel, tell me your story, in your words, and don’t worry about boring me with it. If I don’t like reality I’ll change it in my head. Tell me all!’
Mr Bond: ‘You don’t want to know it all, trust me, you’ll be disappointed…
Me: ‘Disappointed is the theme of my night.’
Mr Bond: ‘You’ll have to expand on that later but anyhow, here I go, but keep in mind I only give half of the story so I can’t tell it all, you’ll have to get her version as well to understand it all.
Where to start I’m not sure, at the beginning I guess would be the best place. I came here once, a long time ago. The British government had some vested interests in Argentina at the time, it always has really, but during this period of change in the government, we saw an opportunity for a new way of working and exchanging information with the Argentine. Many things were happening in South America, the US had their interests and their methods, and we had ours.
I was sent here to explore some of these opportunities and to blend in with the well-to-dos of the time. We say that Argentina is not longer the rich country it once was, that the wealthy have left; well they haven’t left, the money is just in the pockets of fewer people.
I was at the private dinner party given by Dr Richard Alvarez - not Ricardo, but Richard as he was at pains to point out, boasting English ancestry. He was ludicrously rich and wanted everyone to know. He was hosting a grand event at his hacienda just outside of Buenos Aires. His mansion in the capital, he told us, could not have accommodated all of his guests and all of his horses.
The display of wealth was almost scandalous, imported French champagne, Russian caviar, French cheeses, English Gin (and English tonic), Scottish scotch, Belgian pralines, Italian hams and sparkling water, no luxury was spared. And just like the imported delicacies that were intended to tempt us, there was a harem of imported women - blondes, brunettes, tall, short, thin, voluptuous, one (or two) for every taste. And there was Sabrina. She wasn’t the most beautiful nor the most lavish, but there was something about her, drawing your gaze. She wasn’t just enchanting, she was bewitching, and she cast her spell over all the guests that night.
She was, of course Richard’s mistress. Richard was, of course married, and Richard had many mistresses, of course. But of all of them Sabrina was his favourite, of course, and she knew it (of course). She was about your age, maybe a little older, but unlike you, Sabrina understood the power she had over men (and women as well) and she understood how to use it. She had been a hired performer - a tango dancer at one of Richard’s parties and like the little unknown performer called Evita, Sabrina, used Richard, like her own version of Peron to climb the socialite food chain. Within a few months she was at the top of it.
She had other men in her life, but they all knew that she was Richard’s. But what no one knew was that Richard was actually her’s more than she was his, the man was crazy about her.
From the moment I noticed her, I knew she had to be mine, so I started as I always start. I observed her from the other side of the room - usually whilst speaking to other women. I watched her fastidiously, deciphering her favourite drink. Champagne seemed to be her poison of choice so I grabbed a bottle of ‘Gout de Diamant’, so elaborately displayed amongst the other bottles, and walked towards her. ‘Your glass seems to be on the empty side, may I oblige?’ I said, to which she responded ‘I’ve been drinking this pompous drink all night, every Tom, Dick and Harry has been trying to impress me by filling my glass. You do realize I’m already sleeping with the man who paid for this?’ she responded. Her response took me by surprise and amused me at the same time, I had underestimated her. ‘If you really want to make me happy, get me dirty a dirty martini, one olive, Gin not Vodka, Hendrick’s.’ she said. ‘I’m on it’ I replied to which she added, ‘Oh and one more thing - I want it shaken not stirred.’
And that’s how we met, and I think maybe the rest should be for another day, another pizza, another bottle of wine, or maybe even part 2 of this story calls for an asado.’
Me: ‘ What!!! What, do you mean that’s it? You haven’t told me anything, you’ve basically written the script for another movie, better than Fleming himself, I might add, but you haven’t told me anything! I might as well go home and read a book!’
I could see the satisfaction in his smile, he had me hooked. It could all be a joke, maybe they had one drunken night after a milonga and he was just pulling my leg. Although I didn’t want him to know, my leg did enjoy the pull.
Mr Bond: ‘Right Moneypenny, enough storytelling for one dinner, the night - just like you, is still relatively young, so where should we go next?’
Walking down the stairs from the milonga, I reflected on tango and life. I have taken the mantle of milonguero, entering the milonga deftly without a stir, staying in the shadows, slipping into my jacket before a tanda, a fan on the table, a glass of sparkling water to moisten my mouth. The colours of my life are subtle and subdued.
It is easy to forget the early days of tango, when each milonga is vibrant and exciting, every tanda a new achievement, heart thumping and quick-of-breath. Of course this is the point at which Moneypenny will be, and that is her right of passage to becoming a tanguera. I should be less parental, and more open minded as I age.
I leave as she is taken to the pista by Alvero, his right arm slid around her slim waist. She looks up to his handsome face adoringly, as if seeing it for the first time. She walks quickly with girlish speed not wanting to lose a moment of the tanda. They disappear into the swell of dancers that now congests the floor.
I stroll slowly through the calles of Monserrat and my mind turns to pizza and Quilmes. The night is now close and the prospect of beer overwhelming. I head for Guerrin in Corrientes. The regular doorman greets me and thrusts the door open wide - but not so fast that his hand cannot catch mine as I enter. Inside it is like a station at rush hour. Waiters call, pizzas are rushed to tables, bottles rock as tops fly, and somewhere behind is the sweet smell of Moscato, causing me instantly to forget the Quilmes.
Pizza and Moscato go together like La Boca and football. Not the only pairing - for there is Quilmes - but a surprisingly great one. Moscato is a sweet fortified wine, sold either by the bottle or the carafe, the latter being my choice. Around me, families, men and women on their own, and lovers gather to eat pizza in this pulsating place.
It is at this moment that the door directly ahead of me opens. A young woman slips in alone and looks quickly about her as if searching the room. Her eyes settle on my table, and she walks purposely towards where I sit.
How is it that she is here? What happened to Sabrina and Alvero? Is that a tear in her eye?
Alvero: ‘You’re overthinking things and just like in tango, when you overthink is when everything goes wrong.’
Me: ‘I’ll be back.’
Alvero: ‘I’ll be waiting.’
I started walking away, I thought, was he right? Was I overthinking all of this? People have affairs all the time in the world of tango, why was I so hesitant? As these thoughts were going through my mind I realized that I have no idea where I’m going. I circumvent the people swirling around me to a ‘vals’, a Troilo I think, I bump into two couples which both give me the look of death, I am in fact commiting a tango capital offense by walking across the pista during a tanda, they might release the hounds on me if I don’t get out of there quickly enough.
Sabrina and Mr Bond are nowhere in sight, I wonder if they left together…. As much as it irritates me when they watch over me like I’m some headstrong teenager, I sort of wish they were here now to take me home for a glass of wine or for a pizza.
I decide to go powder my nose and walk towards the bathroom, as I walk in, there is the usual herd of women fixing their makeup and adjusting their décolleté to either show-off what is already there(or hope is there) or to pick-up what was once there. It smells of ladies’ perfume and there’s a light haze of foundation powder in the air. I get the usual up and down looks you get any time you walk into a tango environment, not even the bathroom is free of scrutiny in this world.
I try to escape towards the back of the bathroom and push the stall door open….
Alvaro: ‘No!!!! Que estas haciendo? No, mi linda, This is not what it looks like!’
Me: ‘Ok, so this is not you kissing Lucia left breast then? Que estas haciendo entonces? A failed attempt at CPR?’
I decide to run out, I don’t need this right now, I’ll pee later, I can hear him tripping and hitting himself against the stall door. Was this what ‘I’ll be waiting’, means in Castellano? Was it understood that it meant, I’ll be in the bathroom making out with another woman while you decide whether you want to come home with me or not? God I hate it when Sabrina is right!!! I’m just happy she’s not here to see it and relish in her triumph over my stupidity.
I can’t run very well in these stupid shoes but somehow I manage to get to my table, grab my bag and run out. I try my best to at least make it out to the first corner just so he won’t see me if he comes looking for me, that is if he hasn’t tripped over some other woman’s left breast. I run two blocks up to Congresso park and sit next to Rodin’s thinker to take off my shoes. My right strap is, like always, refusing to cooperate and as usual I struggle to remove my shoes. When I finally win the battle, I feel a rush of blood go to my feet, as if I had been depriving them of oxygen for the past 4 hours, one day my feet will take revenge on me for everything I’ve put them through. I wiggle my toes and realize just how badly they hurt, this was my first Milonga in 5 months I guess it’s normal. I look up and wonder what Rodin is thinking and why he hasn’t figured out by now.
So now what? I don’t really feel like going home but I’m not sure where to go from here, back to Sabrina’s? She’s obviously not sleeping yet, maybe she’s with Mr Bond, at any rate a night with her will mean sitting through a list of things I did wrong this evening, she’s the Dr Xavier of the tango mutans. Mr Bond, for some reason, if he’s not with Sabrina, I feel like he didn’t go home either, but where would he have gone? Another Milonga? My guess would be a drink, maybe even something to eat, he once took me to that pizza place on Corrientes, maybe he’s there, he goes there a lot from what I remember, should I try to to find him?
I aimlessly start walking down Avenida de Mayo, I love this street, my gaze naturally looks at the top of all the buildings. All Art Nouveau masterpieces, gilded mouldings, dancing arches, undulating roof tops, colourful stained glass windows, all of them bearing testimony to the Buenos Aires of the turn of the century, a flourishing Buenos Aires, too rich for its own good, a Buenos Aires of opportunity, style, luxury, endless spending, a Buenos Aires that once was. With few of the spaces rented out and lack of investment, most of these buildings are falling apart, sometimes only the ground floor is rented out, converted into a cheap eatery or convenience store, I never know whether to feel sad for what was lost or admire the city’s ability to transform itself.
As I reach 9 de Julio, I hesitate for a second, turn right back to my San Telmo querido, and home, or turn left towards the pretty lights of ‘Broadway’? And then like a firefly, I turn left towards Corrientes still in awe of this city and how it can be so many things at the same time, I understand it though, there are so many great things to be, so many inspirations, Paris, London, New York and when you can’t choose, you want to be all of them. Before I know it, I’m on Corrientes, I might as well continue walking, I’ve come this far so I turn left and walk passed the theatres and the flashing lights and find myself across from Guerrin…I peek into from the street and I spot him immediately, he’s a foot taller than everyone else and always in black, how could i miss him! Somehow, I knew he’d be here, I knew or I hoped…... hmm a sad ending to what might have been a night of passion with a hot argentine, or a happy coincidence to have one of the best pizzas in town with one of my favourite people in this town?
They only take cash, as I found out on my last visit when all of the city’s cash machines were ‘fuera de servicio’ So do I have enough? 500 Pesos, Yes I have enough for pizza and maybe even a ‘muscat’.
As the doors open the smell of cooking dough hits me like heat wave on a hot summer day when you walk out of the air-conditioned shopping mall, and all of a sudden I realize I’m starving to death, I have to have a pizza or I’ll die! I see Mr Bond look up, he’s seen me, there’s no turning back now.
Me: ‘Mr Bond, fancy meeting you here, may I join you?’
Mr Bond: ‘Why Monneypenny, of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, you had to walk into mine. Have a seat, I’ve just ordered a Quilmes and some Moscato’.
Me: ‘Perfect, I’ll be right back.’ I just realized I still hadn’t peed…
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