I can’t remember exactly how I met Irma Prego. I was living in Costa Rica in the early 1990s and teaching a course in Latin American literature in the National University there. Often I would go to the literary evenings organised at El Farolito, the international cultural arm of the Spanish government, and on one occasion Irma must have been there. We became friends immediately. Born in Nicaragua in 1933, Irma had at one time been engaged to the poet, Carlos Martínez Rivas, but her parents had eventually forced her to break off the relationship on the grounds that Carlos was too poor. Well he was poor except for his incredible gifts as a poet.
In 1956 Irma moved to Costa Rica and married a prominent journalist. It was an unhappy marriage and they eventually divorced. Although her ex-husband was still alive, at the time, whenever I saw Irma, she would refer to him as ‘el finado’, the deceased one. She was not very tall, about 5’ 2”, and slightly built, but at the age of sixty kept her hair long, though usually worn up. In her youth she had been incredibly beautiful, incredibly unconventional and the darling of all the young male poets of her day, and she still retained her good looks. She had sharp eyes and a sharp wit and conversing with her was a delight. She wrote her short stories with the same voice with which she spoke, full of irony and good humour, but deadly when it came to references to her ex. And in one way or another, all her fiction centred around him and the details of their unhappy union.
To me Irma was a treasure, and she read and commented on all my poetry and all the stories I was writing at the time. She was also very hospitable and had trained as a cordon bleu chef, and we enjoyed many meals together in our respective homes. A proud and gentle and very generous soul, she was much loved by everyone. The story below is taken from a collection entitled Mensajes al más allá, [Messages for the beyond] published in 1996. The irony is that the stories were intended reading for her ex-husband, el finado, in his premature afterlife.
A woman named Carmela, by Irma Prego
It was not for no reason that they called Carmela the Renegade. That silence, that oblique look, that sharp observation, that sudden leap into the most radical of rebellions.
Carmela married a workaholic, who hated Sundays, hated to relax, hated the silence or simple concentration. A hyperactive, psychotic obsessive, he murdered the atmosphere with all kinds of idiotic interventions: trivial and bad-tempered arguments, muttering, complaints, a real pain in the arse the whole time.
One day, because anything can happen in a day in life, one Friday as it happens, Carmela decided to put a bit of beauty into her Sunday, because Sundays should be lived in style, when time slows to a crawl out of the sheer pleasure of doing nothing, or at least the doing the minimum.
With her meagre housekeeping budget, she discovered in the market some splendid, round and compact tomatoes, some freshly picked peas, some tiny potatoes, some clean white Santa Ana onions, some red and green bell peppers, and some of those prawns that are “al dente” in eight minutes.
She prepared the mayonnaise with all fresh ingredients for the French dressing and as she did so her husband’s smiling face flashed through her mind.
Come Sunday Carmela got up early. She whistled in the kitchen, she sang while she bathed and dried the children, recited poetry as she picked things up off the floor, tidied, dusted and swept. She entered the bathroom singing opera at the top of her voice.
She placed the iceberg lettuce on the white wooden cutting board along with the other beautiful components of the salad. Still life, not at all! Wonderful life!
He became impatient because he couldn’t stand the spontaneous joy of those who got up in a good mood in the morning. So he just buried his head in his newspaper: an utterly compulsive reader, reading was for him just a means of escape, had nothing to do with improving the mind.
Carmela tacked the recipe to the wall (a recipe can also make a home) and began her great manoeuvres. She cut the top off the tomatoes, and how beautiful the rose window of Notre Dame turned out, the magnificent structure of a gothic rose window, and each tomato a different one.
At twelve-fifteen her preparations were ready, tomatoes stuffed with prawns, peas, diced potatoes and French dressing. She proudly plonked them on top of the crisp bed of lettuce and triumphantly decorated the crests with aromatic parsley. On top of the green tablecloth she had crocheted herself she laid out the yellow plates and the crystal glasses. Overjoyed she called out: “Lunch is served!”
He folded his newspaper grumpily. He sat at the table with a frown on his face.
With a vaguely threatening gesture he shook the serviette in the air and confronted the tomato as though it was an enemy!
Carmela could see the stinging indictment she was about to receive. With the stern look of a Juvenile judge he asked peremptorily: “What the hell is this, my girl?” Finding the strength to overcome her weakness and fatigue, Carmela responded boldly:
“A stuffed tomato!” She felt almost ashamed with her wounded pride.
“A stuffed tomato!” he exploded. “You know I love my tomatoes sliced,” he said bitterly, “but my tastes count for nothing in this house.”
However, deeply dejected and amid constant grumbles, he devoured four tomatoes with marinated chips, and downed two or three glasses of wine.
The silence at the table could have been cut with a knife, and the lunch intended to brighten up the Sunday had been a heartbreaking disaster.
From that day on she loathed markets, tomatoes and Sundays.
By the time of the siesta Carmela had begun to insult, to scold, to rebuke herself with real fury. Of course it was a disaster, she could get nothing right, life was too much for her, everything uphill all the way, and as for her, she was a silly fool, a hopeless case, a loser, a nobody. An internal speech delivered so angrily, so feverishly, with such intensity that she was convinced that she wasn’t worth a cent, that she was little more than a useless piece of trash. Not surprising that nothing went right for her and she’d never merited a single sincere compliment, nor the slightest recognition, nor even the slightest thanks.
It was then that she began to slink around in the corners as unnoticed as possible, as though she was invisible. She blended into the broom, the iron, the oven, the pressure cooker, the vacuum cleaner. They forgot about her at home, maybe they’d even forgotten before her pathetic attempt to disappear. Occasionally they wondered where she was, but they never saw her; on one occasion they wanted to mention something to her but couldn’t find her; and once they wanted to know when her birthday was but it wasn’t important enough for them to try to find her.
When they lost something, some faceless hand brought it to them, a bodiless cloth rinsed out the bathtub, a soulless creature prepared the meals, the beds were made by the hand and grace of inertia, and the house was cleaned by the electric appliances.
Carmela, an invisible faceless, silent, absent woman, who lived in a house on loan to her from her children who were just passing through, from a husband who was elsewhere, was a slave to them all every day. Carmela, this woman named Carmela, walked out one day for good and left a trail of threads and buttons and needles and dishes and linen and bedding and patches and resentment and empty hours and corners and recipes and shopping lists and thrift and silences upon that huge puddle of tears that she’d never cried.
Translation by John Lyons