Summer 2004
A Fine Wednesday Morning

By Andrew McKenna

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‘I’m more than pleased to meet you,’ he said, extending his hand. I shook it and his grip was firm and cool. ‘Let me tell you, it seems fortuitous that we will be sharing a compartment, at least as far as Antofagasta. I know you, don’t I?’

I said, ‘I don’t think so.’

Travel by rail hands down beats being rattled around by the bus, especially on out of the way routes in the Andes. You sit watching the countryside slip past, insulated from the rain, the heat. In Chile they still ran the old European-built cars on the trains. They didn’t have chandeliers but they were the nearest I’d seen to a grand ballroom. Their polished wood, brass trim, plush green velvet upholstery and decorative marquetry work on the floors suggested you had stepped into another era, when service and style were equally as important as speed. With the desert slipping past you could believe you were en-route to Samarkand or a destination equally as exotic. 

I was drawn to Antofagasta by invisible threads reaching out to me over thirty years, bonds of love laid down before I was even born. I had stowed my luggage and settled by the window when the door slid open and a man appeared in the opening. He looked around the compartment and when his eyes came to rest on me he smiled. He seemed familiar. I thought he may have been an actor I had seen playing a bit part in a movie, or from my home town. I found it immediately disconcerting that I couldn’t place him. 
He blinked, then smiled broadly, revealing a set of uncared for, brownish teeth, chipped in places. I could have sworn he bowed, ever so slightly, from the waist. He wore a checked cap and a heavy black beard, peppered with grey. I guessed he was in his fifties, and his face had the weathered look of a man who has worked out of doors. I supposed he had some Indian blood, and I had no idea why it was fortuitous that we should share a carriage.
‘Allow me to introduce myself,’ he said. ‘My name is Rodolfo Nachtman, formerly of Antofagasta. I was born and raised in Puerto Montt, God bless it, on a day the river overflowed its banks and the sky threatened to fall down under its own weight and drown us all. They say the people in Puerto Montt once had gills, in order to breathe during the interminable rains that plague the town.’ He laughed briefly, drew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. 

He said all this before he had taken a seat. His gaze fell on the empty place opposite me and he opened his palms in a gesture that suggested he was asking my permission. I nodded and he crossed the compartment and sat. He carried no baggage.

‘The south,’ he said and sighed. ‘It is a land made for the indigenas, and for fish.’ He laughed again, as if what he had said was very funny. 
‘It rains too much in the south,’ he continued. ‘Far too much. It is not a happy place. And the Germans. You can count on the Germans to settle somewhere to increase their melancholia. The Andes reminded them of the Alps, the magellanic forests of their Schwartzewalde. The rains, the eternal rains, are enough to bend their Teutonic spirits into perpetual despair. As if that is what they want, to make their hearts content, no?’

He glanced out the window. The sun was dipping lower in the sky, which had turned a fluorescent orange over the turquoise blue of the Pacific. It felt odd to be discussing the rain and bleakness of the south as we headed into the nitrate fields of the northern deserts.

‘And why are you here?’ he asked me.

I deliberated a moment, then said; ‘I’m looking for something in Antofagasta. I’m researching some history. Writing a story. A family story.’

‘A story?’ he smiled. ‘How fortuitous. My trade has always been in stories. I would like now very much to tell you one, a true story. It is about a friend of mine. Named Sergio. It is a true story.’

And this is what Rodolfo Nachtman told me.

In 1973 Sergio was an actor in Santiago. It was a time of great experimentation in the arts. He performed with a small company in factories, in abandoned buildings, at worksites all over Santiago and in the countryside. He was an acquaintance of Victor and Joan Jara, knew Violeta Parra, was part of the great experiment transforming Chile into a socialist workers’ paradise. It would be a new society, a wonderful new world, and it was being created democratically. 

Violeta Parra asked him to join her dance theatre group, and it was on a trip to a friend’s country house later in the week that he considered the offer. He went for a walk one evening beyond the fences of his friend’s ranch and came to a wooded hill. Suddenly he heard a shot ring out from the trees. He nearly turned back, but something drew him cautiously forward. More shots shattered the still air as he climbed. He came to a clearing at the top where a group of pick up trucks were parked, perhaps seven or eight altogether. They were North American, pick ups and utilities and four wheel drives built for rough work, but these were mostly clean and polished, used for ferrying children to school or wives to country clubs. A dog tied to one of them barked at him. As he stood in the twilight with the sun sailing down, men with guns appeared out of the trees and walked towards him. Their guns were not pointed at him, but neither were they pointed at the ground. While he could have been frightened, the men were friendly, even jovial. 

‘Are you a red?’ one of them – evidently the leader – asked him. The others laughed.

‘No, of course not,’ Sergio said and smiled. He sensed who they were. 

‘All right, then,’ the man said, and someone handed him a beer. ‘We speak each other’s language. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Miguel Sepulveda. You will hear more of me. We are preparing ourselves. It pays to be prepared, friend, don’t you agree?’

‘Absolutely,’ Sergio said, and someone pressed a beer into his hand as well. 
‘I’ll drink to that, Señor Sepulveda.’

‘To preparedness,’ Sepulveda said, and he raised his beer and drank. 
Sergio said, ‘That’s good beer’.

‘You know there’s a storm coming?’

Sergio looked at the sky. He said, ‘The forecast is for clear skies.’

‘We’re not talking about the weather,’ someone muttered behind him, and he turned to see who was talking. They were probably fifteen or twenty in all, strong men, well fed. The clothes, the haircuts, the sunglasses – the universal costume of the Latin ruling class.

‘We’re talking about the country,’ Sepulveda continued, and Sergio turned back to him. ‘The reds are taking over the country. We can’t stand by and let that happen. You understand what I’m talking about?’

Sergio swallowed. ‘I know you have to take a wad of cash to buy a loaf of bread these days,’ he said. He felt the sweat rolling down his face. ‘I know that the workers are running the factories. I know Allende has given huge tracts of land in the south back to the Indians. Where are we headed next?’
‘Exactly, my friend. The reds are running the country and it’s going to the shit house.’

‘Of course,’ Sergio said, and the vision came into his head at that moment of these men as jackals. He was frightened, but exhilarated as well. Here, he knew, was what the new society was working to overcome, the born to rule class that believed the country was theirs for the plunder. 

‘You’re with us or you’re against us,’ Sepulveda said, and Sergio looked him in the eye.

‘I’m with you, compadres,’ he said, and raised his beer. ‘To the revolution.’
He imagined he heard a cock crowing.

One of the first things Sergio did back in Santiago was call Violeta and tell her he would be honoured to join her company. To him it was almost an act of love. There was no other choice for him; he was not a fighter or a politician. He was an artist, and he would turn his art to the defence of his country. 
Violeta sent him a script and he was at the university on that morning, a fine Wednesday morning, the eleventh, when he heard airforce jets screaming overhead, lower and louder than he had ever seen or heard any planes. Then came the distant whump of explosions. He was sitting in the cafeteria. Soon people were running everywhere, there was shouting and screaming. Soldiers had surrounded the university. Someone yelled that people had been shot in the street. They had bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace. A group of drama students crowded around a radio, and Sergio heard the last of the President’s address. 

‘I will always be with you,’ he was saying, and his voice wavered, although it may have been radio static. ‘At the very least you’ll remember me as a just man who was loyal to the motherland. 

‘The people must defend themselves, but not sacrifice themselves for nothing. Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and in its destiny. Other men will overcome this grey, bitter hour, in which treachery is howling for power. Carry on, knowing that much sooner rather than later, great avenues will open again for free men to build a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!’

There was shouting in the hallway and shots. People were pouring out of the building, everywhere was confusion. Sergio joined the crowd. 

Outside he saw smoke fill the sky from the direction of La Moneda. A young girl was shot down in front of him. Soldiers ran everywhere. 

He found himself in a courtyard with six or seven others. He recognised them as drama students. They could not enter the building, and a group of soldiers rounded the corner and sealed their only way out. The soldiers turned their rifles onto them. An officer ordered the students to climb a tree. Sergio was thirsty. He held on to a young man who was bleeding from the arm. There was more shooting around the campus. A group of men in plain clothes entered the courtyard and looked over the students. Two or three of them pointed their guns into the tree. 

‘Are there any reds there?’ one of them called. 

‘None here!’ Sergio yelled back. The men fired and two students dropped to the ground. There was screaming. Sergio recognised one of the militiamen. 
‘Miguel Sepulveda!’ he yelled. ‘Don’t shoot us!’

‘Who’s there?’ Sepulveda called back. He ordered his men to lower their weapons, and he walked into the courtyard. 

‘It is Sergio,’ he shouted, and he climbed down. ‘Compadre.’

Sepulveda lowered his voice as he walked towards Sergio.

‘What are you doing here hanging around with these reds?’ Sepulveda asked. His face was dark. 

‘No, compadre, these aren’t reds. None of us here are reds.’

‘This place is full of reds.’

They talked quietly for a few moments, and Sergio convinced him that they were a group of actors there to perform a play about the hardships the socialist government had brought to the countryside. Sepulveda said they could leave, and he turned to go. Then suddenly he turned back, suspicious, and asked Sergio for a performance. 

‘Give me a few moments,’ Sergio said. ‘We have lost some of our cast.’
He called the others down out of the tree and told them what they were to do. They performed a brief, improvised piece of theatre, grossly overacted, but it was enough to convince Sepulveda, and he and his men escorted them out of the grounds. 

‘You have the worst bunch of actors I’ve ever seen,’ Sepulveda told him as he said goodbye. ‘You need all the practice you can get.’

Somehow Sergio avoided trouble. He disappeared. Everyone knew about the summary executions, how the soldiers had smashed Victor Jara’s guitar, then his hands, then killed him. He heard about the thousands detained at the National Stadium, and the morgue overflowing with the tortured and murdered. 

Sergio left the capital and went to live in Valparaíso, working as a stevedore. It was tough work. The General said he wanted to make a nation of entrepreneurs out of a nation of proletarians, and there would be no unions, no compromises for better working conditions. 

Somehow he kept himself fed and ahead of the Junta. A childhood friend of Sergio’s, a priest, was now living in Valparaíso. One Sunday afternoon he accompanied him on a visit to the barrios. They met with a group of poor young people who spoke about their addiction to benzene fumes, the easiest way to escape from their lives. They spoke about police raids and about the desaparecidos. 

On their way back from the barrios, Sergio and the priest were brought to a halt by a motorcade. First came the motorcyclists and then a line of black limousines. The priest was ill at ease, and said ‘It’s the General.’

As the limousines flew past they caught a fleeting glimpse of a white-gloved hand, waving from one of the windows. It reminded Sergio of pictures he had seen of the Queen of England. There was no cheering crowd, though, there was only Sergio and his friend standing at the corner. And then, with a whiff of exhaust fumes and a shot of dust, they were gone. 

It made Sergio angry. The absurdity of that white-gloved hand waving as to an adoring crowd broke through his years of hiding from the realities of his country. The General was insulated from the pain he had inflicted, waving at the slum dwellers, mocking them. 

He did not make his decision easily to turn against the law. But he decided then, in the face of daily horrors, that the only course open to him – the only honourable course – was to take up arms. He joined the Frente Patriotico Manuel Rodriguez, the armed wing of the Communist Party. A friend of his, a theatre director, had been arrested and disappeared for directing a play in which, as a ship sinks, the Captain whispers to the crew, ‘Keep up the struggle’. 

Keep up the struggle. Art would not do. The Government, the Americans, the press, labelled them terrorists, but he believed it was his duty to do what he could. 

They began small. At deserted beaches under cover of night they unloaded arms shipments. Sabotaged power lines here. A bank robbery there, to bankroll another operation in another province. A petty functionary working for the Junta shot dead. Just enough for the General to know he had an opposition. To make them look over their shoulders. 

Sergio thrived in the Party. Everything in his life took a back seat, his family, his friends in Valpa, everything. He lived and breathed the Frente, became a real party man, an apparatchik. 

By 1986 they had consolidated their power and were ready to act against the heart of the government. They chose a quiet road out of Viña del Mar, where the General stayed at his weekend villa. Sergio led a small group down out of the hills under cover of night, and at the one point where the road narrowed and the motorcade had to pass between high rock walls, they struck. The night air was split with automatic weapons fire and grenade explosions. 
Bodyguards returned fire but the battle was soon over. Three of them were wounded. The General was shaken, knocked about as his driver swerved to avoid the shooting, but otherwise unharmed. 

And that was as much as Señor Nachtman could tell me. Sergio had disappeared after that. Sergio’s name appeared on the country’s most wanted list. He may have escaped, drawn on his acting experience to disguise himself and cross the border, to live in anonymous exile. Perhaps he was captured, tortured like so many thousands of others, murdered. 

‘I don’t know,’ Nachtman said. ‘We can hope he got over the border. He may have been dumped from a helicopter into the sea. That was one of their tricks.’ 

He was living in peace in some place where the struggle for democracy was long over, or resting with the fishes. Or he had disappeared like a phantom, and under the dictadura there was no shortage of them.

We sat in silence for a long time. The sun had gone and outside the Pacific was bathed in silver light. Señor Nachtman’s breathing grew deep and slow, and I thought he was asleep. I was lulled by the steady rhythm of the rails.
‘And you are on family business,’ he said so suddenly I started.

I stretched and gathered my thoughts for a moment, then told him my father had been a radio broadcaster. He trained and worked for most of his life in Santiago, but in 1972 he was offered his own station, Radio Antofagasta. My mother asked him where it was, and he said, ‘Why, in Antofagasta, of course!’ and she screamed at him. 

‘I’m not going to live there!’ she yelled. But he eventually persuaded her it was the best thing for his career and she finally had to agree.

She loved Santiago, her life in the city, the theatre, her circle of friends. But my father’s career had stalled. Allende had set up a new radio school and the city was flooded with radio graduates, smart young people with fire in their bellies, and qualifications. My father had fallen into radio as a career with no specialised training. And my mother was pregnant with me at the time, and they were concerned about security. 

So they packed their belongings and travelled into the nitrate fields of the northern deserts – my mother referred to it as the land of bird dung, fit only for birds – and they settled in the crumbling, dust-blown town of Antofagasta. My mother did her best to make their home comfortable. She formed a book group with some of the local women. She organised poetry readings. She even started a garden, can you believe that. In that climate, she used to say.
Then came September 1973. My father was incensed that the military should tell him what he could and could not broadcast. The Generals ordered radio stations to suspend their regular programming and play patriotic music. My father ignored the order. He did not play anything radical – he simply stuck to his scheduled programming. It was one of his qualities, my mother always told me, a stickler for the rules who did not adapt easily to change. 

Then for a few days in October a military delegation, part of the army’s air wing, toured the country. The so-called ‘Caravan of Death’. The unit travelled from town to town in a helicopter, armed with grenades, machine guns, knives. They came to Cauquenes, La Serena, Copiapo, Calama, some other cities in the south. Antofagasta as well.

Many people voluntarily turned themselves over to the soldiers when they were called. Someone informed on my father. He was ordered to report to the local barracks. He went, ready to explain that he had no recordings of patriotic songs anyway. He had to keep to his scheduled programming or else go off the air. In his mind that was perfectly acceptable. 

They loaded him and two local schoolteachers into the back of a truck. My mother fled with the clothes she was wearing. I have never even seen a photograph of my father. 

‘And what happened to him?’ Nachtman asked me.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’ve never known. I’ve always chosen to believe he was alive somewhere. Like you and your friend Sergio. You would rather believe he is living in Sweden than think they ever got him. Perhaps they let him go. Maybe he survived in an internment camp, then fled to Argentina or Bolivia.’

‘And now you’re going back. Why has it taken you so long?’

‘I’ve been drawn here ever since I was a child,’ I said. 

‘And that’s all?’

‘The Justice Commission is opening a grave they have found in the desert. I have to be certain.’

The sound of the rails filled the holes in our conversation.

‘There can be no certainties in this life,’ he said after a while. ‘This life is a dream. There can be no certainties.’

I dozed then, feeling a little lighter after sharing my story with Señor Nachtman. It lifted a weight off my heart. 

As I slept I dreamed of Sergio, and of Miguel Sepulveda in his dark sunglasses, the crack of rifle shots through the trees. Then I was riding the helicopter high above the gleaming fields of nitrate, and a man who had only a skull for a face rode beside me. I was standing in one of those fields holding a gun in my hand. White dust and grit was flung into my eyes. Men were kneeling on the ground, blindfolded, their backs to me. I was moving along the line, shooting them, and as I did each one tumbled into a trench. Their blood glistened on the white earth. Señor Nachtman watched me and smiled. 
When I woke the lacklustre light of dawn was seeping through the windows. My body was stiff and cold, my neck ached from the unnatural angle I had been sleeping in. I shivered. I felt Nachtman was involved in my father’s disappearance and, thinking of his smile the previous night, I felt cold. 
The ocean was as still as a millpond. Nachtman had gone, to the dining car I presumed, and we were pulling in to the station at Antofagasta. I stood, lifted my bag down and left the train. A handful of people had alighted on the platform, and I scanned faces for Nachtman but he was not among them. I shivered again, and my skin puckered. I resolved to find him in Antofagasta. 
The disembarked passengers gradually dispersed and I was left standing on the platform in the sun, somehow familiar smells seeping in through my skin, as if I had already known this place. My mother had told me something of Antofagasta as I grew up, and it was not altogether strange. The sweep of dusty streets and white painted houses down to the sea, the cathedral spire, the radio tower. A ginger cat wandered into the sun and stretched, took my size out of the corner of its eye. It raised its hackles then turned and walked away from me. I looked up the empty platform. 

I carried my bag out into the already hot streets of town and began walking. I had not gone a few blocks but I was in a sweat. I pulled my handkerchief out and wiped my brow under the shade of a Jacaranda tree. I glanced over the road. A hotel stood directly opposite, nondescript and shabby from the street, but my arm was aching from carrying my case so I crossed and took a room. It had an air of opulent decay, which appealed to me. The walls were stained, one of the windows cracked, but it overlooked a shaded courtyard and I was happy to put my bag down and rest. 

I had the name and number of a lawyer, Manuel Sandoval, working for the Justice Commission, so I started with him. His secretary said he was out, so I left my number at the hotel. When he called me back, about three hours later, he was affable and sympathetic. 

Yes, he said, they had opened several graves recently, and were in the process of identifying bodies. There were clothes, a few personal belongings, old photos – beautifully preserved in the dry saltpetre fields – but very little in the way of personal identification. The victims had been depersonalised. He told me they were going slowly, for one thing because each grave was the scene of a crime, but for another because they did not want to alarm the military. No crimes committed under the dictatura could be prosecuted – the General had seen to that. 

‘Can you date the graves?’ I asked Sandoval.

‘Date them?’ he said. There was a silence for a moment. ‘Yes, easily, more or less. These people were murdered in 1986.’

‘1986?’ I repeated, and my heart sank. ‘This is not my father’s grave. He disappeared in 1973.’ 

‘That’s too bad,’ Sandoval said. ‘You should come over anyway and tell me everything you know. I’ve just had a man here who was looking for a relation as well, so it doesn’t hurt to let me know the circumstances.’

I felt a shadow pass and asked him who had been to visit.

‘A fellow named Nachtman, Rodolfo Nachtman. Do you know him?’

‘And what did you say your name was?’

Sandoval worked out of a tiny office at the far end of town. It was cramped and overflowing with papers and boxes, but the consolation was he had a view of the beach and breakers from his window.

‘Andrés Mendoza,’ I told him. 

He was a fat man with large sweat stains around his armpits, a fleshy, moist face and a neatly trimmed moustache. He looked up, studied me briefly, then made some jottings in his book. He whistled through his teeth as he did. A fly buzzed above his desk.

‘The best I can do is show you what we have retrieved from the plots so far. Not the human remains. They have been removed to the morgue and can’t say much to the untrained eye. A bullet hole is a bullet hole, no? But the artefacts are another story. Come with me.’

I followed him to a chamber at the back of his office and he showed me to a filing cabinet with four drawers. He opened the top drawer. It was full of neatly labelled plastic bags. 

‘You can look all you like,’ he said. ‘Spread them out on the table, but don’t mix anything up.’ 

I spent the next three hours looking over the contents of the filing cabinet. There were cigarette lighters, pens caked in dirt, ancient packets of sweets, wallets with money still in them. There was a mummified, half-eaten empanada. There were photographs, tattered, faded, stained with blood, and I pored over them. But there was nothing there to lead me to my father, nothing to suggest he had been buried in any of Sandoval’s plots. In a small way I felt relieved, yet I was no closer to finding him. 

‘What did Señor Nachtman want?’ I asked Sandoval when he reappeared in the room, two cups of coffee in his hands. I had just finished looking through the last bag. 

‘Nachtman? Why, he did just as you.’

‘Who was he looking for?’

‘Someone lost. Who knows? Maybe he was looking for himself, just as you are.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Who knows why anyone comes here?’ he said.

‘To know the truth.’

He shrugged. ‘There are many truths,’ he said. 

I thanked Sandoval and told him where I was staying, and that I’d be around for another few days. Would he call me if there were any developments, and he said he would. As I was leaving he told me to keep my enquiries to myself.
‘The democracy, after all, is not secure yet,’ he said, and tapped the wall. ‘Walls have ears.’

I left the lawyer’s office and walked slowly back through town in the direction of my hotel. It was getting late and the streets were crowded with people, and I was content to flow with the crowd, to let my mind empty of all thoughts, to be jostled. I was weary of turning over the events of thirty years ago in my mind. 

I stood at a street corner waiting for the lights to change when I saw Nachtman at the far end of the block. He was watching me, and as our eyes met I felt a chill run over my skin. It was him; the beard, the checked cap, the hunch of his shoulders. I remained indecisive for a moment and then the lights changed and the crowd surged forward and moved me toward him. Someone knocked into me and I lowered my eyes, and when I looked up he was gone. I walked up to where he had been and looked into cafes and shops, but he had disappeared. 

I had decided to spend the next few days quietly enough in town, making daily calls to the lawyer, even making an excursion out into the desert to find the graves, but something about Nachtman’s presence threw me. I was unsettled, as if he were watching me. I thought of Sandoval’s warnings about walls having ears. I had already nearly told Nachtman my life story, and I considered now the possibility that he was a secret policeman, watching my every move. As unlikely as it seemed, with his long hair and straggly beard, I was convinced he was watching me and reporting my every move back to DINA. 

I telephoned my mother in Sydney and told her I’d no news to report. Even though she told me before I left not to expect miracles, I knew all the same that she was hoping I would turn up something, some clue, some evidence or at least a remnant. Even a tragic certainty was better than not knowing. 
‘He will remain lost to us,’ she whispered over thousands of kilometres of ocean, and her voice caught in her throat.

I saw her there sitting in our home in Marrickville, crucifix on the wall, or sitting in the backyard under the shade of the lemon tree sipping tea, growing smaller and more withdrawn by the day. There were times when she had driven up to the North Sydney Heads and sat there with the sandstone cliffs behind her and gazed out over the Pacific, as if she were trying to see or hear again the sounds of her country. As if over that expanse of ocean she could find my father again. 

I felt like a phantom in my own country. I had not grown up in Chile, and although I spoke the language like a native people still knew I was an outsider. I knew more about Australian football teams than the history of Chile.

The following day I called Sandoval before leaving my hotel and the phone rang out. Not even his secretary was there. I left my hotel and walked through gritty hot streets toward the radio mast. I mopped my brow as I walked, and stopped under a tree to drink from my bottle of water. I felt someone watching me, but when I turned there was nothing to see. 

A large white building squatted beneath the radio mast. There were few windows, and the faded lettering in red on the side read Radio Antofagasta. I went inside. In the foyer loud music piped through the speakers. Two women were laughing together, standing to one side. I approached the front desk, where a young woman telephonist sat.

I explained to her that I was searching for my father, who had run Radio Antofagasta in 1972 and 73. Would they have any records, any history of the station I might read, any way I might trace my father? She stared at me blankly, then frowned, sucked the tip of her pen. 

‘No, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t know of any records that go back that far.’
‘Is there anyone else who might know of him?’ I asked, embarrassed that a note of desperation had crept into my voice. She shrugged.

‘Perhaps Señora Vazquez,’ she said looking up sharply.

I turned, and one of the women had approached us. She was attractive, around fifty, I guessed, with dark hair and a good figure. She wore no make up and had a strong face with few lines. Her eyes were a deep, piercing green. She dressed well, nearly flamboyantly, with a red silk scarf thrown around her throat. Her air of confidence carried off what, in someone else, may have seemed ostentatious, even absurd. 

‘Perhaps I can help you,’ she said and smiled. ‘I am Gabriella Vazquez, Director of Radio Antofagasta.’

‘You knew my father, Gerardo Mendoza?’ I asked her.

‘Would you come into my office, please?’

She turned and said ‘I’ll catch up with you later,’ to her friend, and I followed her down a carpeted corridor to her office at the far end. Inside it was well insulated from the speakers blaring outside, and she had large windows overlooking the plaza. 

She offered me a seat and we faced each other across an expanse of wooden desk. She planted her steady green eyes on mine, and I felt a little uneasy. I found her very attractive and couldn’t help lowering my eyes to her breasts. I looked away. I may have blushed. 

‘You’ve got a nice office,’ I said. ‘Great view.’

‘Thank you. And what’s your name, young man?’

‘Andrés Mendoza. I’m here looking for my father, Gerardo Mendoza. I grew up … outside the country. My mother fled in 1973, my father, I always thought may have survived. He was director of the station here back then.’
She nodded. ‘I knew him,’ she said, and it seemed for the first time she did not want to meet my gaze. 

‘I’ve come to think of him as a phantom,’ I said. ‘I’ve found no trace of him. No one seems to know anything about him.’

She reached into her drawer and withdrew a framed photograph. She looked at it for a moment then passed it across the table to me. I held it in my hands and stared at it. It showed a smiling, clean shaven man, dark hair and eyes, in his early thirties I would have guessed. He had his arm around a younger Gabriella Vazquez. 

‘I have never even seen a photograph of him,’ I said. 

She breathed in. ‘This must be an emotional moment for you.’ 

I stared at the photograph and my heart quickened. I put my thumb over the man’s mouth and the lower half of his face. It was Rodolfo Nachtman. 

‘I know this man,’ I said. She stared at me. 

‘I think we had better go for a walk,’ she said. 

‘He was on the train with me from Santiago.’

She put a finger to her lips and motioned for me to accompany her. I followed her out of the building, clutching the photograph. We walked two blocks to the plaza where we sat underneath a palm tree. A row of shoeshine boys sat opposite, none taking any notice of us. We sat facing them, not looking at each other. 

‘You can’t have seen him recently,’ she said to me. ‘He was killed in 1987.’
‘1987? All I’ve heard of my father ends in October 1973 in a nitrate field and some men in a helicopter.’

‘The Caravan,’ she said. ‘Yes. I was here. I argued with him when the order came to present to the military. He said it was his duty.’

‘He was a stickler for the rules.’

‘That’s right. As he was when he joined the Frente.’

‘The Frente?’

She smiled. ‘The soldiers from the Caravan didn’t kill him that day. Listen. Your father went by the book and it was nearly the death of him. But only nearly. He was an actor. When he realised the severity of the situation, he played a role, slipped into a character and convinced them to let him go. As soon as he arrived at the barracks he knew he could not tell them who he was. I know this. He came back a week later. He’d been beaten but he’d managed to convince them he was a businessman, no more than that. In the meantime your mother had fled. He missed her by a few days.’
‘And what did he do?’

‘He went underground. He lived in Valparaíso for a time. I know because we kept in touch over the years. A phone call here, a letter there.’

‘A rendezvous now and then,’ I said. She smiled but didn’t look at me. ‘And in Valpa he worked on the docks,’ I continued. ‘And one Sunday he visited the slums with his friend, who was a priest, and he was appalled by what he saw – kids sniffing benzene fumes, the disappearances – and he was even more shocked when the Presidential motorcade drove past with the General’s white-gloved hand mocking them.’

‘You’ve heard the story.’

‘I heard it on the train. Rodolfo Nachtman told me.’

She was unsettled, and turned to look at me. ‘I don’t know anyone by that name,’ she said and shrugged. ‘But what I do know is he joined the Frente Patriotico Manuel Rodriguez, and in 1986 they mounted an attack on the Presidential motorcade. Afterwards, and I believe there was an informer in the group, your father was captured by DINA. And that was the end of it.’

‘Where is he buried?’ I asked. 

‘There was no body. Often there wasn’t. They threw them out over the ocean, over the mountains where there’s year-round snow.’

We sat quietly for a few moments.

‘But they didn’t kill him,’ I said, ‘because he’s here now.’

She looked up sharply. ‘I have an eyewitness testimony that they did kill him,’ she said, and her eyes glistened. 

‘Did you love him?’ I asked. 

‘What are you asking me?’

‘It might be none of my business, what went on between you and my father thirty years ago, but I’m trying to get to my father. I’m trying to find him.’
‘And you want to know what happened between us.’

‘I’ve guessed that already,’ I said. ‘I can tell that by the way you talk about him, by the look in your eyes.’

‘Then why ask?’

‘It’s always better to know.’

She was quiet for a long while, staring straight ahead, and I thought she wasn’t going to answer me.

‘Yes,’ she said finally. ‘I did. I loved him more than I can say. He was my first love. I was little more than a student when I came here. I loved everything about him.’ She brushed hair from her face and her lips may have quivered. ‘But it was impossible. He would not leave his wife – they had not been married long and she was pregnant. We used to meet in a room overlooking this plaza.’

She raised her eyes briefly to a building across the street, a downmarket pensión. ‘We were lovers for nearly a year,’ she continued, ‘and then came the coup. After he came back from the barracks he disappeared. He fled. I thought he was dead. In those early days no one was safe. Anyone could be arrested. Then one day, two years later, I received a phone call and he told me he was living in Valparaíso. We saw each other a few times over the next few years, but it was always very difficult. He was afraid of being captured. We could not stay together for long. He did write to me from time to time. Once he wrote from Sweden, once from Australia.’

‘Australia?’ I asked. ‘When?’

‘I can’t remember when exactly. The early eighties. By then he was deeply involved with the Frente, and I hadn’t know he was out of the country. He had left the country to raise money overseas. And to look for his family.’
I watched the shoeshine boys.

‘He didn’t find us, obviously,’ I said. ‘I never even knew he was there.’
‘No. Obviously.’

I only stayed another two days. Memories were everywhere. Every old building I passed I imagined had been the headquarters of DINA; every man in his middle age I saw in the distance was my father; every young couple were Gabriella and Gerardo, meeting for a secret rendezvous. I kept thinking I would find Nachtman hiding around a corner. I called Sandoval again but the number had been disconnected, and when I walked to his office I found it boarded up. The democracy, as he said, was fragile. 

I met with Gabriella again the next day, and she had made a copy of the photo of her and my father. She gave it to me. We drank coffee in a small cafe on the main road, with buses belching diesel outside and a boy selling lottery tickets on the footpath by the door. 

‘Lotería para hoy!’ he kept shouting.

She did not talk much to me. She kept looking around as if she were looking for someone more important to talk to. I had the feeling she knew more than she would say, but I couldn’t ask any more. 

I did not see Nachtman, but I had the distinct impression he was watching me. Whenever I glanced over my shoulder I saw a space where he had been, a doorway he had just ducked into, a corner he had stepped around. 
Finally I called Gabriella to thank her again for the photo, and to tell her I was leaving. She said a strange thing to me. She said; ‘You’ll never find what you are looking for. None of us ever do. And if you did, you might discover you would not have wanted it anyway.’

On a fine Wednesday morning with the sky a heartbreaking shade of blue, I lugged my suitcase the few dusty blocks back to the railway station. I found my seat on the train to Santiago, lifted the case onto the rack above my head and sat down. I spread the newspaper on my knees. 

As the train pulled out I glanced up. I saw the ocean through the buildings on one side of the tracks. On the other, the platform, and a man and a woman standing not ten metres away, both looking intently at me. The man had his arm around the woman, and her head inclined toward his, just as in the photo Gabriella had given me. They were smiling, as they were in the photo. It was Gabriella, of course, and the man was Rodolfo Nachtman, my father. I jumped to my feet, realising at once that the train was going too fast for me to get off, that I was a long way from the door, and that this was not required of me anyway. I turned back to the window. In the shady light of the station platform, they looked thirty years younger. My father was clean shaven, Gabriella was slender and wearing a skirt that seemed a little old fashioned. I saw it all in an instant, and I was surprised, because she had seemed so chic. Nachtman, his eyes dark in their sockets, raised his hand towards me, a gesture of friendship or farewell, I couldn’t tell. Gabriella smiled and then the train moved on and they were lost to me.

All of them seem unreal to me now – Sepulveda, Nachtman, Sandoval, Gabriella, my father. But most of all my father. The frightened little man sticking to the rules, then going to the barracks in the hope the assassins would see his point of view. The dock worker who undergoes a political transformation in the barrio. The revolutionary hurling grenades at the General’s car; the actor saving a group of students by improvising a piece of theatre before the guns; the clandestine lover. 

I had not gotten any closer to him. I didn’t know any more about the real man – except that, perhaps, he was a coward. But then for all I knew, his bones lay out there in the mountains under a blanket of snow, or scattered under the white nitrates of the desert.

(Andrew McKenna is an Australian writer and journalist. He has worked for publisher Lonely Planet, had plays performed around fringe theatre and national radio, and published two non-fiction books and many articles. His work has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature (USA); River Teeth, A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative (USA); New Internationalist (UK); Carve Magazine and the Best of Carve 2002 (USA); Antipodes, (Canada/USA); the New England Review (Australia). He has just completed a novel, The Illness and the Cure, of which "A Dark Place" is an extract.)