6 + 1 deadly sins
There is a small round kiosk at the end of a rough track. It marks the entrance to the most remote part of Chilean Patagonia. A narrow lane leads to an upmarket lodge at the base of the towering snow-covered peaks. To its side, though not close enough to invade the privacy of wealthy guests, lies a campsite with orange half-sphere tents, vibrant against the greys and browns of the surrounding terrain.
Natalia sits in the kiosk each day between nine in the morning and five in the afternoon, at which point her brother, Franco, takes over for the evening shift. It is a tiny general store with bottles of water and juice, packets of biscuits, bars of chocolate, toilet paper and tissues. Summer has arrived and the refrigeration chest, humming noisily, is filled with ice cream.
It rarely seems like summer here; in an instant clouds can sweep in, sinking so low that the tops of stunted trees disappear from view. The wind is severe, smacking against the kiosk windows that rattle like a pair of castanets.
Natalia doesn’t hear the humming or the rattling because she is in another world. With earphones on, she is singing old Madonna and Blondie hits at the top of her voice. This is how she spends much of each day, this is how she fights the boredom. Her voice is a pleasant one, in tune and melodic, though she doesn’t know this.
The infrequent customers, appearing only when the gale force winds have subsided, are campers and backpackers; the lodge guests have no need for her wares. Individuals or couples enter, catching her out as she sings away. Most are young and the boys are struck by her beauty, though she doesn’t know just how beautiful she is. Although disappointed by the poor produce on sale, some of them – Dutch, German, French, English – are so awe-struck that they visit several times to make unnecessary purchases. One box of tissues. A packet of gum. Anything to see her again. She smiles, a warmly enticing though innocent smile. She rarely speaks beyond a gracias when they hand over their money. Then their holidays are over and they move on, leaving Natalia to her kiosk and her singing.
Her father, Orlando, is the owner of the kiosk. He recognises his daughter’s beauty and fears the danger that this might bring. He is protective, collecting her in his ancient truck late afternoon and dropping off Franco, who, at ten o’clock each evening, will have to walk home through gale, snowstorm or uncharacteristic calm. Natalia is Orlando’s pride and joy, the daughter who had to grow up far too quickly. She was just eleven when her mother died and the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning and so much more fell to her, this now in addition to working in the kiosk. Natalia is a good girl, happy to work hard for the sake of her father who she loves dearly. She can tell that every single day he mourns the loss of his darling Maria, this over seven years after her death.
Sometimes a worker from the lodge visits the kiosk, tired and in a hurry following their shift, intent on purchasing and leaving with no more than a chao. Most are locals, some have come for a season before moving on.
A tall, lean boy wearing the lodge guide’s uniform enters the kiosk. Natalia is singing as she stacks a shelf with biscuits; she doesn’t hear him enter. It is mid-afternoon, the foulest day of the week with near-vertical sleet hammering against the windows. As she turns, the rain relents and a beam of sunlight floods into the kiosk. One side of the boy’s face is illuminated, the other remaining in dark shadow. She sees stubble, an earring, ringlets of jet black hair, and an eye of the most dazzling and piercing blue. He turns; the face, now in its entirety, is breathtaking.
She well knows how the boys behave to impress her and this one smiles as he should. There is a meeting of hands as he passes over his five thousand pesos note and Natalia shivers at the touch.
‘Buenas tardes, señorita,’ he says as he leaves. His smile lingers as Natalia sings with heartfelt passion.
She is pleased to see him a little after four o’clock the next day, having waited long hours in the hope that he would return. She switches off her music as soon as he enters and greets him with a smile.
‘No need to stop. I heard you outside, you have a beautiful voice,’ he tells her.
The boy buys a small bottle of water; she knows water is provided free to the guides at the lodge. He leans against the counter and chats, close enough for Natalia to feel his breath. He is called Gustavo and is from Santiago, working in Patagonia for the summer season. He laughs – summer! He explains that Santiago has real summers of intense heat, so hot that the boys wear shorts and T-shirts and there is the seaside near Valparaiso to visit. But being a guide here is ideal because he can be outdoors, in touch with the mountains, the lakes and the wildlife that he loves so much. Could there be any better way to spend a university vacation? He speaks with such confidence and uses the language of a big city – Natalia recognises that he could never be a local.
University. Natalia knows the word, but what it would be like to study there is as remote as what it might be like to visit the moon.
The next day Gustavo is back, talking about his study of Law, of how important it is for his sort to represent the people. He tells her that Pinochet destroyed the opportunity for change for a whole generation and the dictator’s legacy lives on. Now it is time for the young to make a difference.
‘I know nothing of this politics,’ Natalia says. ‘We lead simple lives here. We make do with what we have.’
‘No, that’s not good enough,’ Gustavo insists during his visit the next day. ‘Finally, we have the chance to make a change and we must grab it. But that’s not possible here, it has to be in the city, in Santiago, where there is life.’
‘Life? There’s life here,’ she counters.
‘For a while, yes, for a visit, yes, but not forever.’
Natalia is confused, remembering his recent praise for the wild of Patagonia. She thinks of her lonely father, her needy brother. This is where life is for her family.
Each day at four o’clock Gustavo returns. He talks of politics, of law and economics, of how unfair society is in Chile. She cannot understand this because around her everyone is equal – the gauchos, the cleaners, the shopkeepers, the guides. Only the owner of the lodge is different, occasionally arriving with a broad smile and words of gratitude.
Natalia likes the sound of Gustavo’s voice and his words are unimportant. She is happy to look into his expressive eyes, eyes that convey so much joy, compassion, earnestness and humour.
One day, mid-sentence, he stops talking and grips her hand. Natalia’s first kiss comes surprisingly easily, the meeting of lips, the meeting of tongues, their bodies pressing together. Each day, the talking is less and the kissing more. When Gustavo touches her body it seems so natural, at first through her clothes – her back, her shoulders, her waist, her breasts. And then his hands find her skin and hers find his. When he cups her breast for the first time her shiver erupts into a gasp.
‘Is this alright? To touch you here?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ she says, the one word enough.
When he places his hand on her jeans she cries out. She loosens her belt, lifts his hand to her waist and guides it below. Her own hand finds him hard and she knows this marks a new beginning: she is about to become a woman.
Gustavo is still in the kiosk when Orlando and Franco arrive to collect Natalia. ‘Buen día señor,’ Gustavo says with gusto. Orlando nods and grunts. He looks across to Natalia, her head is bowed and he knows.
Each day, a little after four, Natalia puts up the cerrado sign, locks the door and makes love to Gustavo.
‘You are my first,’ she tells him.
‘But I am not your first.’
‘No, you are not, but never have I been in love until now.’
‘That’s a city boy’s talk,’ Natalia says, firmly believing this to be the case.
‘I tell you, it’s not. I love you and I want us to be together forever.’
‘Are you going to remain in Patagonia then?’ she mocks, still not convinced by his declaration. But like him, she is in love, and her lovemaking is because it is Gustavo, not merely to do what is needed to become a woman.
‘This is a beautiful place, Natalia, but it is time for you to see more. Come with me to Santiago.’
Suddenly, Natalia feels the claustrophobia of the vast open space around her that has always been her home, this and the entrapment of having to care for her father and brother. But how can she leave them?
The weeks pass. Orlando has met Gustavo several times, at first at the kiosk and later on, a guest in their humble home. The two men get on well, conversing cordially. Orlando watches his daughter blossom, recognising it to be love and accepting what must go with it. When Gustavo asks if he may take Natalia to Puerto Natales for a short break when he has time off, this caring and loving father, having considered the boy’s kindness and passion for his daughter, agrees to the request.
The pair spend their days walking in the hills, with her beloved high peaks visible in the far distance. Never has Natalia had free time like this and now she guiltily resents the daily drudgery of opening the kiosk at nine, leaving at five, returning home to cook, clean and sew before dropping into bed exhausted. At night she lies with Gustavo in a bed in a hotel, bringing a new intimacy compared to their clumsy lovemaking in the cramped kiosk. They talk, Gustavo planning their life together in Santiago as if it were a done deal.
It seems impossible to return to Torres del Paine and the kiosk, but this Natalia must do. Her heart sinks as she unlocks the door and stands behind the counter. She puts in her earplugs and starts a CD but cannot sing today so sits in silence, staring at the hands on her watch as they edge towards four o’clock. When Gustavo doesn’t appear her heart sinks. Finally, just a little before five he joins her.
‘The weather was terrible, we had to wait such a long time for the boat to collect us, I thought I would miss you.’
‘And I thought you wouldn’t return.’
‘Never think that – I love you.’ Gustavo is crying.
They kiss and are still kissing when Orlando and Franco arrive. Her father nods and grunts as the pair break free.
Over the next few days, Gustavo talks with ever-increasing enthusiasm for life in Santiago. Singers perform there, no not Madonna, but new artists from around the world – they could go to concerts. Perhaps Natalia should take singing lessons, perhaps consider university. She could spend hours browsing in bookshops. There are galleries and museums, one celebrating the great poet Neruda, another a Museum of Memory to record Pinochet’s crimes. It all sounds so enticing to Natalia, though nothing matches the pull of spending her life with Gustavo.
It is time to tell her father about her plans. This shrewd and wise man knows ahead of her saying a single word and he is quick to give her his blessing. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Natalia has heard Orlando weep for the loss of Maria. That night, Natalia believes that the sobbing is stronger than ever.
The next morning, he hands her a brightly coloured cotton bag with a metal clasp and leather straps. ‘It was your mother’s,’ he tells her. ‘Now it is yours.’
Time passes too quickly, Gustavo’s work as a guide has come to an end and his vacation is over. Natalia packs her few possessions into the bag and stays up with her father and Franco through the night, bringing up memories, though for large stretches of time sitting in comfortable silence.
At a little after eight the next morning, Natalia says her final farewell to Franco and climbs into the truck with her father. They collect the girl who will be replacing her at the kiosk, a good girl from the village, trustworthy and not shy of hard work. The three of them enter the store where an incoherent Natalia races through anything she can think of about running it. Orlando remains inside the kiosk as Natalia steps out: they have said their goodbyes already many times over the past few days.
Gustavo is outside waiting for her, his bulging backpack on the ground next to him. He, too, has said several farewells to Orlando; during each conversation Gustavo vowing to take good care of his daughter.
‘The bus arrives at the information centre in about twenty minutes. We’d better set off,’ Gustavo says as he moves towards his lover.
Natalia looks up to the sky, today as rich a blue as she has ever seen. A condor circles overhead. The surrounding mountains are a dusty pink, the bright summer vegetation is fading fast. Beyond, there is snow on the highest peaks, dazzling white in the morning sunshine. Soon there will be the first snows of autumn.
She takes another step towards her new life, towards Gustavo’s warm smile and welcoming arm, towards the boy, the man, she loves. She raises her own arm to take hold of his hand, then pauses and let’s her arm drop to her side. Next, a tiny shuffle backwards and a turn to face her father as he stands by the door of the kiosk. Forward and back, forward and back in her head. Forward and back.
Yes, I know it’s good for me!
I've joined a gym. I'm not certain why because running outdoors, past real people and real scenery, is quite probably more enjoyable than being on a treadmill in front of a television screen. But people-watching is great fun - some are there to get fit, others seem to like wearing the gear more than anything else. And that got me thinking and writing. This story is from a female's perspective and I hope it makes you smile. If you recognise someone you think you know, you are wrong because all characters are fictitious (yeah right!)
Challenge? Same as usual, Level 4.
Time? Ten minutes. No not tonight, I’m knackered. Eight will be enough if I go a teeny bit faster.
And away we go. Yawn, yawn, yawn.
Not very crowded today, I wonder why. Maybe people are realising that there are about a million better things to do. Like a glass of pinot grigio. Or two.
Of course, Little Miss Fitness Freak is here as ever. ‘Just off to the gym for five hours, darling. Do you mind doing dinner, putting the kids to bed, ironing, emptying the dishwasher? No need to stay up for me.’ How can she row that fast?
My god, what have we got here? This is a hopeless case. And it can’t be good for the equipment, she’ll break it. No don’t come this way, please no.
“Yes, that’s right, these are the cross trainers.”
That could be why the sign says ‘Cross Trainer’. Thicko.
“Oh, it’s your first time here. You’ll love it.”
Why is she looking at me with such a helpless expression? What does she want me to do? Do I let her struggle or should I be charitable?
“Just press the quick start button and then begin stepping. I’d stick to Level 1 if you’re new to it.”
Why am I so kind? To be truthful I think the best bet for her is to buy a machine for home then at least no one would have to watch. Eating less would probably help, too. Oh! I just can’t look; all that flab bouncing around is disgusting. Still I’ve got my earphones in and now it’s time for telly so I can ignore her. Let’s see what’s on.
Football 2, Tennis 1, Darts 1.
Of course Duncan would be in telly heaven here. Now that we’ve got Sky he’s become a non-stop football watcher. And when he’s not watching he’s playing.
‘It’s the playing what keeps me fit, it’s why I don’t need a gym,’ he said when I asked him to come along with me.
Some bloody birthday present that was – a year’s gym membership. The cheeky sod, when I unwrapped the plastic card he patted my belly. ‘You’ve got this to get rid of’ he told me. Well he should try having a baby and see what happens to his body. Mind you, that was over eight months’ ago. I was a size 10 before I got pregnant, now I’m a 14. To be truthful the last trousers I bought were a 16, they must have been incorrectly sized. I was so embarrassed I cut the label off as soon as I got home. Anyway, when you look at her over there you really know what fat means.
Compared to her I’m a siren. I use that word a lot now. I used to think that a siren was the noise a ship makes, but then I saw 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Weird film, a bit boring, but I do like George Clooney. Well, actually more than like. Fantasise would be truthful – if only Duncan knew. The most enjoyable part of the film was those sexy sirens. Apparently they’re something to do with Greece, though I’m not sure how because the film is definitely set in America.
She’s stopped; she’s only been on it for about two minutes.
Well done love, brilliant for a first effort.”
She’s heading off downstairs. God, she’s just been on one machine and she’s given up. She might as well walk from her car to the shops a couple of times and save the £50 a month.
Why is time going so slowly? I’ve still got three minutes more on this. Then it’s arm thrusts. They are my worst, I absolutely hate them. Well, I haven’t got to do them, I haven’t got to do anything even though my personal trainer has put arm thrusts down on my card. He’s not here so I could cheat, I could just tick the box.
Personal trainer. Sounds pretty grand for an illiterate, indifferent pimply adolescent. You get a free consultation when you join. I got the short straw with mine. There’s one trainer all the girls want and I can see why, but he’s never given to the beginners. I think he’s used as an incentive to make females stay on after the initial rush of enthusiasm has gone.
‘What do you want to achieve’, my adolescent asked me.
‘Get fit, lose weight,’ I said.
‘Yes but what exactly, you need targets.’
I get enough bloody targets at work, this is meant to be for enjoyment.
‘How do I know? It’s your job to tell me.’
‘I can’t unless you give me some idea of your sporting ambitions.’
‘Sporting ambitions’. Honestly, what does he want me to say? Olympics 2016? So I told him I wanted to lose 10% of my body weight and increase fitness by 20% and that meaningless drivel made him happy for the rest of the session. He showed me how to use five of the god knows how many machines they’ve got in here and wrote down how long I needed to spend on each of them.
Enjoyment, that’s a joke. Honestly, if a medieval knight came up here he’d think he’d entered a torture chamber. Not that a knight could get up those stairs, not in armour anyhow. Blimey, talk about knights, here comes a knight in shining armour. That bloke is drop-dead gorgeous. He’s looking at me, quick my seductive smile. He’s smiling back! He’s heading towards me! What do I do? Speed up, show I’m fit. 7.8 kilometres an hour. 8.3. 9.5. 10, I’ve reached 10. I’ve never done that before. He’s reached the Leg Press. I can’t smile while I’m working so bloody hard, my face is creasing up. He’s reached the Pec Machine. I’m next, he’s going to cross train with me. He’s walking past, but he’s still smiling. He must have some sort of facial disorder.
Now I get it. ‘Hello luv’ and a kiss for the girl on the treadmill behind me. She’s still running while they’re kissing.
Bugger, my personal trainer’s turned up and he’s watching me.
“Hello, Scott…Yes, it’s going really well, thank you. I’m doing overtime on this, I’m up to eleven minutes…No, I’ve decided to save the arm thrusts ‘til later. I’m going straight for the triceps press machine.” I don’t want him to see that actually I can’t do arm thrusts. When he’s not around I just count out the twenty without moving my arms.
“No, ever so kind of you, Scott, but you don’t have to come with me. I can set the weight myself. Actually I found 25 kilos a bit tough, I was thinking more like, say 10... What, no benefit at all, are you sure? …OK what about a compromise, say 15… Well I’ll try 20 but I’m not optimistic.”
Thank you, Scott. Sadist.
I don’t make a habit of being rude about people, but the man next to me has terrible body odour. His vest is wringing wet, which actually I don’t mind, in a funny sort of way it’s quite sexy. Like Sylvester Stallone in Rambo. But the smell is anything but. Hasn’t he heard of antiperspirants? Sharon told me people can’t pick up their own body odours so maybe I stink, too. Interesting thought, I can have a quick sniff while my arm’s up in the air on this thing. Seems OK. Excuse me, he’s the one who pongs and he’s laughing at my investigation of personal hygiene.
I can’t bear standing next to him, I’m off.
Another tick on my pointless little card. I think I’ll go for rowing next. To be truthful I should have done this earlier according to my schedule but I wasn’t prepared to compete with Little Miss Fitness Freak. Well compete is the wrong word, be humiliated by is more to the point. Scott said the order is important but he never explained why and I really can’t see how it can make any difference. Exercise is exercise.
OK, away we go. I’m meant to do a kilometre in six minutes. Once I managed 800 meters.
This is a fascinating location for people like me who are interested in psychology and those sorts of things because the weights section is close by and I love watching while I row. It’s where most of the personal trainers hang out, yelling out instructions.
‘Just four more, you can do it. Go on! Do it!’
My first question is why would anyone want to do it? I simply cannot understand why men risk their lives lifting those giant circles of steel. You know what’s odd, most of them are really short. They’re as broad as they are tall with bulging muscles that look like they’re about to split tee shirt sleeves apart. Although I’m not an expert in psychology I think they do it because they have an inferiority complex being so little. I don’t even think they enjoy it, what with all their grunting and groaning and screaming.
‘I can’t!’ Grunt, groan.
‘Yes, you can. Do it.’ Yell, yell.
‘Last two – go on.’
Well look at this, bloody Supernova Prima Donna’s arrived. Yes go on men, ogle, encourage her. She might as well turn up naked with what she wears.
“Hello Polly, everything OK with you?...Yes, I’m fine, thanks. Love your outfit.” Polly works where I work and in the office she’s all prim and proper.
God, those shorts, you can pretty well see her bum. She’s either got a thong on or nothing at all. I don’t believe it, she’s bending down on the Power Plate. You can see her… oh I don’t even want to think about it. It was the Power Plates that made me agree to go to the gym. Apparently all the stars use them, there were quotes from Kylie Minogue and Ellie MacPherson in the blurb. I hoped Power Plates would do the job without me having to put in much effort, but to be honest, that hasn’t proved to be the case and the vibration just makes me feel sick.
There’s an arc of men watching Polly’s bottom and the treadmill line has become a viewing gallery. Maybe the gym should supply binoculars. This place is a dating agency for some people. Now she’s talking to them, she must practice that smile in the mirror. ‘Who wants me tonight, boys?’
I’ve had enough for today. Seven hundred meters is almost a kilometre, it’s not cheating if I tick the box. A shower, that’s what I’m looking forward to, I must say the showers are nice here.
Until I joined the gym I never realised quite how many women have tattoos. I’ve seen Polly’s little butterfly, it’s on one of the few places she isn’t exhibiting today. She’d get arrested if she displayed where it is. You almost feel inadequate in the changing room if you haven’t got a tattoo. The nicest I’ve seen is the pink fairy with delicate wings. I like the brightly-coloured dragonfly, too. Mind you, there are some pretty weird ones as well, like the cartoon devil with a giant red fork running from ankle to upper thigh – which is a polite description of the end point. And the skull and crossbones stretching across both bum cheeks.
I’ve been going to the gym for over three weeks and I can’t say it’s made much of a difference yet. I will persevere though because despite the moaning, at the very least it gives me a chance to think and let’s face it, it’s thinking about things that develops the mind.
So with a bit of luck it will be healthy body, healthy mind for me.