Authors: Geoffrey Household
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That coast had none of the exhilaration of savagery. The spent swell of the Pacific broke on the beach in parallel lines with the regularity of a vast body radiating into empty
space. Above the high tidemark of some long-forgotten storm the grey-brown sand turned to grey-brown soil with no clear line of demarcation; and this barren plain extended inland for a couple of
miles until the first ridge of the Andes sprang from it so exactly that in places a builder’s set square could have been pushed into the angle. It was a coast forbidding habitation,
resembling some imaginary reconstruction of Permian landscape; but not even the most desperate of amphibians would have attempted to experiment upon that still and utterly waterless land.
The desolation curiously affected those who were at ease in it. They regarded their home, so far as it permitted itself to be loved at all, with the proud perversion of islanders. Their
irrigated patch in the midst of the dry detritus of sea and mountains was as startling and unnatural as the white esplanades, further along the coast, of the sea birds’ colonies. The green
became a symbol of protection. So perhaps was white to the gulls.
The ridge which rose from the coastal plain was barren as it had been before the coming of the oil company except for the black road which swept up it in three long legs forming an easy gradient
for the monstrous truck-loads of drill-pipe and casing. Here and there a boulder, loosened from the crest by wind, stood immovable among packed gravel though to the eye off balance. The only lump
of organic life, vaguely black and white, where Rafael Garay squatted on the hillside with his arm around his son, adjusted itself to gravity with more ease.
Immediately below him were the white-washed, red-roofed cottages of the labour lines dotted by cans and pots of dusty flowers. Further north a green strip of cultivated land ran along the coast
protected by groves of eucalyptus where at last it met the desert. To the south was the company town, the sheds, dumps and wharves of the port and two breakwaters against which the Pacific, every
twenty seconds, spurted its spray to precisely the same height. Beyond the port, after a green interlude of sports grounds, the desert returned made still more desolate by acres of concrete in
which were set the power station, the refinery and the shining metal masses of the tank farm. There all evidence of human life ended except for some shacks close to the garbage-strewn beach left
over from the very early days of the Company.
Rafael Garay had left his bed at first light, resentful of the unaccustomed responsibilities of leadership. To be in the midst of talk was inspiring; it clarified the thought of the speaker as
well as that of the committee or audience which listened. But between the talking of yesterday and the talking of today, so much of it unnecessary, one felt the need of self-forgetfulness. That was
why he had tiptoed out of his house to the refreshment of dawn.
He had not realised that the big eyes of his son were open and watching him. When he reached his perch on the ridge and turned round the beloved figure was trotting up doggedly after him. He ran
down and lifted the boy in his arms with passionate Latin paternity. It was needless to ask him why he had followed. The boy remained at his side, silent and half asleep.
Far out over the melancholy crawlings of the Pacific, clouds had become radiant though the shore was still held under the Cordillera’s overpowering shadow. In the half-world a cock crew.
There was a stirring in the nearest group of houses: the susurration of a hive of men and women laying aside their blankets and lighting fires. Underlying this faint chant of human sounds was the
distant drone of the overflow from the Charca: a thin column of water arching down from the wall of the reservoir into the pool which fed the irrigation channels a hundred feet below. Rafael was
suddenly exasperated by the blankness of this smooth, inverted triangle of concrete which blocked the mouth of the only ravine. Colourless in the dawn it advertised the will, finance and technical
intelligence of the Compañía Petrolífera Cabo Desierto. Without it neither the cultivated land nor the future he planned for himself and his fellows were possible. He knew
that. Still, such power was indecent.
Peace? There wasn’t any peace apart from the boy. The calm of the port below him was that of a corpse. Two of the Company’s tankers were tied up far away in the Capital, idle. The
third rode high at the off-shore buoys. No oil flowed except from the tank farm to the power station. And for all this he, Rafael Garay, was largely responsible. He admitted to himself that a man
who killed could not expect peace. It was enough to be satisfied that one was in the right.
He was a carpenter, and by trial and error had become a craftsman. The obstinate genes of Basque ancestors had persisted through passive wombs of Indian and Negro mothers, but he was, to a
European eye, black. Since all his society was coloured in darkish shades of brown he was unconscious of any major difference. As for his native Indian blood, he insisted without any evidence at
all that he was the descendant of princes. That was the Spaniard in him.
Whatever order he was given he could carry out promptly and even wisely; but for all his pride he could not feel the equal of these technicians who created a home in the desert, who drilled
beneath the Andes for four kilometres and controlled with such exactitude the ferocities of pressure that oil could be turned on and off as if it were water. They thought of everything before it
happened. That was it. If you could think of a thing before it happened you were one of them.
He was not in the least jealous of the pay and privileges of these experts whose bungalows were just over the crest of the ridge behind him. Most of them were British; some were from his own and
neighbouring republics. All were the same in the essential, seeming to have been born among machinery. How was it possible that men could know so much when they were careless of so much? They even
kept acres of grass cut short and wasted their time playing with balls on it instead of feeding it to animals. Some could hardly speak Spanish or work with their own hands. Yet their technology
formed a gulf more impassable than that between landowner and peón. There the gulf was merely a difference in income; in all which mattered, dignity and humanity, the peón was the
equal of his employer.
He envied only superior knowledge. If it depended on him, there would be no limit to the earnings of men who could do what these had done. No, what he resented was the smooth and cruel world of
their creation in which a man was well-meaningly treated as a unit in a mass. Twenty years ago you could fight the Company; now the Company did not seem to be there to fight. The Company approved
of the State, and the State of the Company, and men found that between the pair of them they had forfeited all their rights. Cared for like expensive cattle! If you fatten them up you have the
right to drive them to market.
The boy in his own way was also reviewing a problem: that though the world was uniformly satisfying there were things in it which ended. He was seven years old and promised to have the same
square, powerful face as his father. His skin was much whiter, and he would have passed as a boy from the south of Spain if it had not been for the exceptional grubbiness, unnoticed by a
father’s eye, of his blue shirt and once-white cotton trousers.
death?’ he asked suddenly.
The question startled Rafael. He knew that the boy, deep down, mourned for his mother without words either spoken or clearly thought; yet this single bubble bursting at the surface seemed so
obviously derived from his own thoughts of the killing of the Company.
‘Man, one moment one is here. The next moment one is not.’
‘But could you die now? Here?’
He was about to answer: yes. But what the devil? A kid must not be left with a thought like that. Deprived of a mother, he couldn’t be allowed to believe that he might have no father.
‘No, that is impossible,’ Rafael answered, begging whatever powers might be listening to pay no attention to his reply.
‘Because I have so much to do.’
‘Me, too. Every day I have much to do.’
‘More than when our mother was here.’
‘How? You used to help her.’
‘But now I do anything I like. They say: “let him alone, poor kid! He has no mother.”’
He imitated in miniature the tone and rhythm of some kindly voice intervening in his favour.
‘Don’t you miss her then?’
That was too solemn and forlorn a thought to be answered at all. The boy countered it with another question.
‘They say she was murdered. Who killed her?’
No one. By God, that was the trouble! How easy if there had been any single person who had killed her, if there had been, for example, a boss who could be killed himself or even a boss who would
weep at his mistake and beg and be granted forgiveness! But what had killed her was the Company, the State, the Union, the slimy cleverness of a lot of whore’s spawn upon none of whom could
be placed the sole responsibility.
Up to a point a man of good will could have no complaint. The Company had drilled their three stupendous wells. The whole field had taken pride in the joint triumph of the Three Sentinels which
could, it was said, produce two million tons of oil a year for thirty years. So it was reasonable that the Company should decide to close down the old bailing and pumping wells in the shallow field
and dismiss eight hundred and seventy men. Clearly there was no longer work for them. But Cabo Desierto was more than an oil field; it had become a home, a
like any other with its
own shops and streets and taverns and a mayor.