El gerente resultó ser un hombre alto y flaco, completamente calvo. Usaba anteojos con armazón de oro y hablaba con la voz fuerte y sonora de los uruguayos. Le dijo a Petrone que el segundo piso era muy tranquilo, y que en la única habitación contigua a la suya vivía una señora sola, empleada en alguna parte, que volvía al hotel a la caída de la noche. Petrone la encontró al día siguiente en el ascensor. Se dio cuenta de que era ella por el número de la llave que tenía en la palma de la mano, como si ofreciera una enorme moneda de oro. El portero tomó la llave y la de Petrone para colgarlas en el tablero, y se quedó hablando con la mujer sobre unas cartas. Petrone tuvo tiempo de ver que era todavía joven, insignificante, y que se vestía mal como todas las orientales.
Por la mañana Petrone lo pensó un rato mientras tomaba el desayuno y fumaba un cigarrillo. Dormir mal no le convenía para su trabajo del día. Dos veces se había despertado en plena noche, y las dos veces a causa del llanto. La segunda vez fue peor, porque a más del llanto se oía la voz de la mujer que trataba de calmar al niño. La voz era muy baja pero tenía un tono ansioso que le daba una calidad teatral, un susurro que atravesaba la puerta con tanta fuerza como si hablara a gritos. El niño cedía por momentos al arrullo, a las instancias; después volvía a empezar con un leve quejido entrecortado, una inconsolable congoja. Y de nuevo la mujer murmuraba palabras incomprensibles, el encantamiento de la madre para acallar al hijo atormentado por su cuerpo o su alma, por estar vivo o amenazado de muerte.
—Habré soñado —dijo, molesto por tener que decir eso, o cualquier otra cosa.
El cabaret era de un aburrimiento mortal y sus dos anfitriones no parecían demasiado entusiastas, de modo que a Petrone le resultó fácil alegar el cansancio del día y hacerse llevar al hotel. Quedaron en firmar los contratos al otro día por la tarde; el negocio estaba prácticamente terminado.
El silencio en la recepción del hotel era tan grande que Petrone se descubrió a sí mismo andando en puntillas. Le habían dejado un diario de la tarde al lado de la cama; había también una carta de Buenos Aires. Reconoció la letra de su mujer.
Encendiendo el velador, incapaz de volver a dormirse, Petrone se preguntó qué iba a hacer. Su malhumor era maligno, se contagiaba de ese ambiente donde de repente todo se le antojaba trucado, hueco, falso: el silencio, el llanto, el arrullo, lo único real de esa hora entre noche y día y que lo engañaba con su mentira insoportable. Golpear en la pared le pareció demasiado poco. No estaba completamente despierto aunque le hubiera sido imposible dormirse; sin saber bien cómo, se encontró moviendo poco a poco el armario hasta dejar al descubierto la puerta polvorienta y sucia. En pijama y descalzo, se pegó a ella como un ciempiés, y acercando la boca a las tablas de pino empezó a imitar en falsete, imperceptiblemente, un quejido como el que venía del otro lado. Subió de tono, gimió, sollozó. Del otro lado se hizo un silencio que habría de durar toda la noche; pero en el instante que lo precedió, Petrone pudo oír que la mujer corría por la habitación con un chicotear de pantuflas, lanzando un grito seco e instantáneo, un comienzo de alarido que se cortó de golpe como una cuerda tensa.
Cuando pasó por el mostrador de la gerencia eran más de las diez. Entre sueños, después de las ocho, había oído la voz del empleado y la de una mujer. Alguien había andado en la pieza de al lado moviendo cosas. Vio un baúl y dos grandes valijas cerca del ascensor. El gerente tenía un aire que a Petrone se le antojó de desconcierto.
En la calle se sintió mareado, con un mareo que no era físico. Tragando un café amargo empezó a darle vueltas al asunto, olvidándose del negocio, indiferente al espléndido sol. Él tenía la culpa de que esa mujer se fuera del hotel, enloquecida de miedo, de vergüenza o de rabia. Llevaba aquí mucho tiempo…Era una enferma, tal vez, pero inofensiva. No era ella sino él quien hubiera debido irse del Cervantes. Tenía el deber de hablarle, de excusarse y pedirle que se quedara, jurándole discreción. Dio unos pasos de vuelta y a mitad del camino se paró. Tenía miedo de hacer un papelón, de que la mujer reaccionara de alguna manera insospechada. Ya era hora de encontrarse con los dos socios y no quería tenerlos esperando. Bueno, que se embromara. No era más que una histérica, ya encontraría otro hotel donde cuidar a su hijo imaginario.
Petrone liked Hotel Cervantes for the same reasons that anyone else would have disliked it. It was solemn, peaceful, almost deserted. A then associate had recommended it to him when he was crossing the river on the Vapor de la Carrera, mentioning that it was located in central Montevideo. Petrone agreed to an en suite room on the second floor, which overlooked the reception area. He knew from the number of keys hanging on the wall in the front desk that there was hardly anyone staying; the keys each had a heavy bronze disk with the number of the room, a naive attempt from the management to prevent clients fitting them in their pockets.
The lift was in front of the reception, where there was a counter with all the daily papers and a telephone book. He needed to walk just a few meters to his room. The water came out boiling hot, and that made up for the lack of sunshine or fresh air. There was a little window looking onto the roof terrace of the cinema next door; sometimes there’d be a pigeon strolling there. The bathroom had a bigger window, which sadly opened out onto a wall and a far off section of sky, almost useless. The furniture was good, there were more drawers and shelves than he he would need, and a lot of hangers, that was unusual.
The manager turned out to be a tall and lean man, completely bald. He wore gold framed glasses and spoke with the strong powerful and resounding voice of the Uruguayans. He informed Petrone that the second story was very peaceful, and that there was just one single lady in the only room attached to his, working somewhere or other, and returning to the hotel at nightfall. Petrone met her the next day in the lift. Realizing when he saw the number of the room on the key she was holding in her palm, as though she was offering up a giant gold coin. The porter took their keys to hang them up, and stopped to talk to the woman about some letters. Petrone had time to observe that she was still young, insignificant, and that she was poorly dressed, just like all Uraguyans.
The contract with the mosaic suppliers would take a week or so. In the evening Petrone unpacked his things in his closet, organized his papers on the table, and after having a bath set off to cross the city as it was already time to go to his associates’ office. The day was spent in conversations, interrupted by an aperitif in Pocitos and a meal in the house of the head associate. When they dropped him at his hotel it was after one. Tired, he went to bed and immediately fell asleep. When he woke it was almost nine, and in those first moments of leftover night and sleep, he thought that at some point he’d been annoyed by the crying of some poor creature.
Before leaving he chatted with the employee who worked at reception and had a German accent. While finding out about bus routes and street names, he looked distractedly around the huge lounge, at the extreme end of which stood his door and that of the single lady.
Between the two doors on a pedestal was a disastrous replica of the Venus de Milo. Another door, on the side wall opened onto an exit with the obligatory chairs and magazines. When the staff member and Petrone weren’t talking the silence of the hotel seemed to coagulate, fall like ashes on the furniture and the tiles. The lift seemed almost thunderous, and so too even the ruffling of the pages of a newspaper or the strike of a match.
The conferences finished at nightfall and Petrone went for a walk around 18 de Julio before going to dinner in one of the bodegas on the Plaza Independencia. Everything was going well, and maybe he’d be able to return to Buenos Aires earlier than he’d thought. He bought an Argentinian newspaper, some black cigarettes, and walked slowly back to the hotel. The cinema next door was showing films he’d already seen, and anyway he didn’t feel like going anywhere. The manager saluted him as he passed and asked him whether he needed more bedclothes. They chatted for a moment, smoking a cigarette, and said goodnight.
Before going to bed Petrone organized the papers he’d used during the day, and read the newspaper without much interest. The silence of the hotel was almost excessive, and the noise of one tram after another going down Soriano street offered only a momentary pause, reinforcing the silence for another interval. Without much concern but with a little impatience, he threw the paper in the bin and undressed while looking distractedly at his reflection in the wardrobe mirror. It was an old wardrobe, and it had been attached to a door that had once joined his room with the next. Petrone wasn’t surprised to discover that he hadn’t noticed this door the first time he’d looked around the room. At first he’d thought that the building had always been a hotel but now he realized that, like so many modest hotels, it had been installed in an old office building or family house. Now that he thought about it, almost all the hotels that he’d been in —and there’d been many— had had some condemned door, sometimes visible but almost always with a closet, a table, or a clothes stand in front of it, which, as in this case, gave it a certain ambiguity, a shameful desire to hide its existence like a woman who thinks she can hide herself by holding her hands over her belly or breasts. The door was there, anyway, projecting beyond the level of the wardrobe. At one time people had entered and exited it, slamming it, leaving it ajar, giving it a life that was still present in its wood, so distinctive from the walls. Petrone imagined that on the other side too there was a wardrobe, and that the lady from the room would think the same about the door.
He wasn’t tired but he fell fast asleep. After three or four hours he was woken by a sense of discomfort, as if something had happened, something annoying and irritating. He turned on the bed-side lamp, saw it was half past two, and turned it off again. Then, from the room next door, he heard the crying of a child.
At first he didn’t really notice. His first feeling was one of satisfaction; now he was sure that the previous night it had been a child that had kept him awake. Everything explained, it was easier to get back to sleep. But then he thought again, and slowly sat up in the bed, without turning on the light, listening. He hadn’t imagined it, the sobbing was coming from the room next door. The sound could be heard through the condemned door, it was coming from that side of the room, near the foot of the bed. But there couldn’t be a child in the room next door. The manager had clearly said that the lady lived alone, and spent almost all day at work. For a second it occurred to him that maybe she was minding the child of some friend or family member. He thought about the previous night. Now he was sure that he’d already heard the crying, because it wasn’t the sort you’d easily confuse, rather, a series of irregular faint whines, of hiccups of complaints followed by a momentary whimper, all of this inconsistent, minimal, as if the baby were very sick. The little one must have been only a few months old, although it didn’t cry with the shrillness and the sudden clucks and choking of a newborn. Petrone imagined a child – a boy, he didn’t know why – with a gaunt face and stilted movements. That was whining during the night, crying modestly, without calling too much attention to itself. If it weren’t for the condemned door the crying wouldn’t have made it through the walls, no one would have known that there was a baby crying next door.
Petrone thought about it for a while in the morning while he was having his breakfast and smoking a cigarette. Not sleeping well wouldn’t help him in his work. Twice he’d woken up in the middle of the night, and both times because of the crying. The second time had been worse because over the sound of the crying he could hear the voice of the woman that was trying to soothe the child. The voice was very quiet but it had an anxious tone that gave it a theatrical quality, a whisper which crossed the door with as much force as if it were a shout. The child gave in to the coos for moments at a time; then started again with light intermittent complaints, an inconsolable distress. The woman would again murmur incomprehensible words and, the spells of the mother to quieten the child tormented by his body or his soul, by being alive or threatened with death.
“This is all well and good, but the manager pulled one over on me.” Thought Petrone to himself upon leaving his room. The lie annoyed him and he couldn’t let it go. The manager just looked at him.
—A child? You must be confused. There aren’t any little babies on that floor. A single lady lives along side your room, as I think I said before.
Petrone hesitated before speaking. Either this man was lying stupidly, or the acoustics of the hotel had played a trick on him. The manager was looking at him with his head tilted as if he were irritated by this complaint. “Maybe he thinks I’m shy and just looking for an excuse to move to another room”, he thought. It was difficult, somewhat absurd even, to strongly insist in the face of such a categorical denial. He shrugged his shoulders and asked for the paper.
—I must have dreamt it — he said, annoyed at having to say this, or anything at all.
The cabaret bored him to death and his two hosts didn’t seem too enthusiastic either, so he had no trouble getting a lift home, citing tiredness resulting from the day’s work. They arranged to sign the contracts the following evening; his business there was almost over.
The silence at the reception of the hotel was so massive that Petrone found himself walking on tip-toes. They’d left him the evening’s newspaper by the bed; and there was a letter from Buenos Aires. He recognised the handwriting of his wife.
Before going to bed he contemplated the wardrobe and the raised edge of the door. Maybe if he put both his suitcases on the wardrobe, blocking the door, the noises from the next room would be reduced. As usual at this time, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. The hotel put things to sleep and people were sleeping. But it occurred to an already irritable Petrone that the opposite was true and that everyone was awake, awake and uneasy amid the silence. His unexpressed anxiety must surely be communicating itself to the house, to the people in the house, lending them a kind of spying, of hidden vigilance. What nonsense.
He almost couldn’t believe it when the cry of the child brought him back at three in the morning. Sitting on the bed he asked himself if it wouldn’t be a good idea to call the night watchman to stand witness to the fact that it was impossible to sleep in this room. The child cried so weakly that for moments at a time he couldn’t be heard, even though Petrone felt that the crying was there, constantly, and that it wouldn’t be long before it rose again. Ten or twenty drawn out seconds would pass; then a brief hiccup would come, a barely perceptible complaint that would play out sweetly until breaking though as a true cry.
Lighting a cigarette, he wondered if he shouldn’t give a few discrete knocks on the wall so the woman would make the child shush. It was only when he thought about the two of them, about the woman and the boy, that he noticed that he didn’t believe in them, that, absurdly, he didn’t believe that the manager had lied. Now he could hear the voice of the woman, with her hurried —though so discrete— consolation. The woman was cooing to the child, consoling him, and Petrone imagined her seated at the foot of the bed, rocking the child‘s crib or holding him in her arms. But try as he might he couldn’t imagine the child, as if the affirmation from the hotel-worker was more true than this reality he was listening to. Little by little, as time passed and the weak complaints changed or grew louder between murmurs of consolation, Petrone began to suspect that this was all a farce, a ridiculous and monstrous game that couldn’t quite be explained. He thought about old stories about childless women, secretly organizing a doll cult, a secret invented maternity, a thousand times worse than doting on dogs or cats or nieces and nephews. The woman was imitating the cry of her frustrated son, comforting the air between her empty hands, perhaps with her face wet with tears because the cry she was feigning was at the same time her true cry, her grotesque pain in the solitude of a hotel-room, protected by indifference and by the dawn.
Turning on the bed-side lamp, incapable of getting back to sleep, he wondered what he was going to do. His bad mood was malignant, contaminated by the environment, where suddenly everything seemed rigged, hollow, false: the silence, the cooing, the only thing real about this time between night and day and which deceived him with its unbearable lie. Knocking on the wall didn’t seem like enough. He wasn’t completely awake although it would have been impossible to sleep; without knowing exactly how, he found himself slowly moving the wardrobe until the dusty and dirty door was revealed. Barefoot and in his pyjamas he knocked like a centipede, and putting his mouth up to the pine panelling he started to imitate in falsetto, imperceptibly, a whine like the one that came from the other side of the door. He raised the pitch, moaned and sobbed. From the other side of the door came a silence that was to last the whole night; but in the moment which proceeded it Petrone could hear the woman run out of the hotel win a whip of slippers, giving a dry and instantaneous shout, the beginning of a short shriek that was cut short suddenly like a tensed rope.
When he passed the manager’s desk it was after ten. Between dreams, after eight, he had heard the voice of the employee and that of a woman. Someone had been walking around the room next door moving things. He saw a chest and two big suitcases near the lift. The manager had an air about him that Petrone interpreted as bewilderment.
—Did you sleep well last night?— he asked in a professional tone that barely concealed his indifference.
Petrone shrugged his sholders. He didn’t want to insist, when he had hardly one night left to stay in the hotel.
He was waiting for some comment, and Petrone facilitated with his eyes.
—She’d been here a long time, and she goes just like that. You never know with women.
—No— said Petrone—. You never know.
On the street he felt nausiated, with a nausea that wasn’t physical. Swallowing a bitter coffee he started to turn the incident over in his mind, forgetting about the business, indifferent to the splendid sunshine. It was his fault that that woman had left the hotel, driven crazy with fear, with shame or with anger. She’d been here a long time… She was sick, maybe, but harmless. It wasn’t her but him that should leave the Cervantes. He had a duty to talk to her, to apologize and ask her to stay, promising her his discretion. He took a few steps back and in the middle of the street he stopped. He was afraid of making a fool of himself, that the woman would react in some unforeseen way. It was already time to meet with the associates and he didn’t want to keep them waiting. Well, to heck with her. It was nothing more than hysteria, she’d soon find another hotel where she could take care of her imaginary son.
But that night he started to feel bad again, and the silence from the room seemed even heavier. When he’d entered the hotel he couldn’t help looking at the key board, where the key from the key from the room next door was still missing. He exchanged a few words with the employee, who was yawning and waiting to clock off, and he entered his room with little hope of being able to sleep. He had the evening papers and a crime novel. He entertained himself sorting out his suitcases, ordering his papers. It was hot, and he opened the window wide. The bed was well made, but he found it uncomfortable and hard. He finally had all the silence necessary to sleep soundly, and it weighed on him. Tossing and turning, he felt as if he were beaten by this silence which he had reclaimed through guile and which was returned to him in tact and vengeful. Ironically he thought that he missed the sobbing of the child, that this perfect calm wasn’t enough to sleep and was even less to stay awake. He missed the sobbing of the child, and when much later he heard it, weak but unmistakeable through the condemned door, above his fear, above his fleeing in the middle of the night he knew that it was okay and that the woman hadn’t lied, she hadn’t lied in cooing to the child, in wanting that he be quiet so that they could sleep.