Letter from Elsewhere

Electric shocks and stashed cash in the back streets of Buenos Aires
Dominic Hilton

Painted houses in the La Boca barrio of Buenos Aires

My seventy-three-year-old physiotherapist, Sylvia, is a tiny, birdlike woman who wears flesh-coloured spandex onesies that leave painfully little to the imagination. Her hair is blue-purple and clearly not real, while her bustling surgery in an unfashionable barrio of Buenos Aires is dark and subterranean, like Hitler’s bunker. The walls of the waiting room are crowded with dozens of yellowing certificates awarded decades ago by something called the Argentina Society of the Shoulder and the Elbow. A rickety school desk is home to two wartime field telephones, and behind it stands an improbable antique switchboard with multicoloured jacks and plugs, alongside what looks like an Enigma machine, held together by strips of adhesive tape.

After a series of torturous phone calls with Alejandra, Sylvia’s humourless, cigarette-smoking assistant, my first appointment was finally scheduled for three o’clock on a Wednesday. I arrived a few minutes early, which in Buenos Aires is a major no-no, equivalent to blowing your nose in a Tokyo restaurant. As punishment for my promptness, Sylvia made a great show of snubbing me. Fluttering in and out of various rooms, she avoided my eye while squawking orders at her six or seven other patients. “¡Sigue adelante! ¡No pares hasta que te lo diga!” Unsure what to do, I sat dumbly on an uncomfortable wooden chair, brandishing my medical card as I watched an anorexic teenager with a Ken doll haircut do isometric squats three feet from my face. It seemed strange that the boy was exercising in the reception area, until I peeked through a serving hatch into the surgery’s cell-like gymnasium. Victorian medicine balls sat in neat little rows. Frayed ropes hung flaccidly from the exposed brick walls, and a large, sweaty man in a funereal suit and tie was strapped like a starfish to a decrepit Pilates machine, groaning.

Forty minutes later, Sylvia called my name while frowning at a clipboard, as if there was likely to be another Dominic Hilton in the room, waiting his turn, invisible to the eye. I stood up to hand her my documentation, and she tossed it dismissively towards Alejandra’s desk, before shepherding me into a partitioned cabin, past a pair of Bambi-eyed paraplegics. Drawing the curtain, she said we were now going to remove our clothes and lie down.

“Together?” I asked in Spanish, misinterpreting her colloquialism.

She pursed her lips. “No, just you.”

I stripped and took position on the collapsible hospital bed. Sylvia hovered over me, pressing an ice-cold hand to my brow. “You must miss your home, Hilton.”

“I miss… my family,” I said, after a moment’s reflection. “Nothing more.”

“Not even the fog?” Sylvia asked.

“Actually, it’s not so foggy in England,” I told her. “That’s just a…” I searched my mind for the right word, “…a myth.”

Clearly, this was not what Sylvia wanted to hear. Her bony shoulders fell, and without explanation she started addressing me in French. “Nous allons vous faire du bien, mon cher.”

Génial!” I said, and she squeezed my bicep with a surprisingly strong grip. Then, without warning, she hooked me up to a machine with worn orange knobs and jolted me with electricity for half an hour. My body convulsed uncontrollably while I eyeballed the oppressively low ceiling, which like the walls and floors was painted army green, apparently in the early 1940s. In fact, the only thing reminding me that I hadn’t travelled back in time was the curious playlist of music piping via hidden speakers through the surgery. I recognised that Enigma track with the Gregorian chants and carnal gasping, followed by the love theme from Flashdance.

The night before, I’d been recumbent on a sofa in my apartment, half-watching a TV news story about armies of carpinchos invading a wealthy gated community in the Buenos Aires province. The giant rodents had reportedly wreaked havoc, causing traffic jams and shitting all over the rich residents’ landscaped lawns. It reminded me of a family I know who’d had their home broken into by four armed robbers the week before. They too live in a gated community, and the thieves tied my friend to a chair with electrical wire, pressing a gun to his temple and threatening to gang-rape his naked wife as their three young children hid under a bed.

“So, what did you do?” I asked him a day or two after the incident.

He shrugged. “I gave them money. Four thousand US dollars.”

“You had four thousand US dollars in cash lying around your house?”

He looked at me like I was nuts. “Of course. Hidden in the walls.”

“Why?” I asked.

Again, he gave me a look. “This is Argentina. Everyone keeps money hidden in their walls. For precisely these kinds of scenarios.”

Back in Sylvia’s surgery, a couple began to argue noisily in the next cabin and a woman started either to sob or climax. “¡Ay Dios! ¡Ay Dios!” My eyes strayed to the wall above the electricity machine. Next to a framed reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was a laminated card, reminding me that “There is always God who urges us to live and serve to give happiness.”

The currents continued to charge through my body, causing me to do the cha-cha-cha with my shoulders, like I was possessed. What the hell, I thought, and on a whim, I closed my eyes and said a prayer, out loud, asking for clarity on a personal matter that had been tormenting me for weeks, months, years.

I certainly wasn’t expecting a response, but to my great surprise, I got one, instantly. It was like a miracle, the way my ever-present mental fog lifted, and a reassuringly straightforward solution appeared before me, plain as day. I was stunned, and immediately began to worry that the answer I’d been given was wrong. “Are you sure?” I said, but the other party had rung off.

It was right around then that the curtain whipped open and Sylvia appeared. “¡Listo!” Unhooking me from the machine, she pointed at a chair she’d dragged into the cabin with her, and said we were now going to sit down.

“Just me?”

I took a seat and Sylvia stood behind me, wrenching my head this way and that, like she was hoping to detach it from my body. All of my darkest, trembling thoughts bumped together, until some of the worst ones fractured. This agonising violence went on for ten minutes or so, before Sylvia suddenly let go of my head and leaned close, whispering into my ear. She smelled like a newly cleaned bathroom. “¿Como te sientes, mi amor? ¿Mejor?

Mejor,” I said, then she asked me if I’d spoken to God earlier.

I told her I wasn’t sure, and she clapped her hands together, making me jump as she danced around the chair to face me. “¡Nos vemos pronto, Hilton!

Gathering up my clothes, I promised to arrive late to my next appointment, and she gave me the look that said, “Now you’re getting it, Englishman.” Then she vanished to attend to the helpless paraplegics in the corridor.

After my session, I felt a little hollow, so I sat in a nearby café, drinking coffee, which is something I usually try not to do after 4pm. “Are you sure?” the prowling waiter asked when I ordered a third cafecito, and I sighed and said, “No. No, I’m not sure.”

A scabby, one-eyed dog with inflamed testicles trotted into the café, like he was a regular customer. The dog had a grubby bandanna knotted around his neck, and the bow-tied waiter turned to watch him through narrowed eyes. A plump woman at a nearby table slapped her paperback down on the table and, with a piercing whistle, invited the dog to join her. The mutt scurried across the chequered floor, jumping onto the chair the woman had pulled out for him, where she fed him a medialuna. He sat perfectly upright, staring at me as he licked his chops. I took it as my cue to go home.

That night, I lay under my bed covers, staring up at the eternal whiteness of my bedroom ceiling. Perhaps something had come over me, or maybe it was getting electrocuted, but all of a sudden, I felt strangely at peace. The pain in my neck had reduced to a dull ache, and despite the coffee, for once my thoughts weren’t gnawing at my brain like a herd of hungry carpinchos.

Then I remembered I didn’t have any cash hidden in my walls.

Dominic Hilton is a writer currently living in Buenos Aires. His essays and diaries have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the world

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