(a work in progress)
“No hay que llorar, la vida es un carnaval…”
Ah, Celia Cruz – she was a legend. She sang that life is a carnival and so there’s no need to cry. Well, Celia, no se; I like your songs and all, but right now, my life isn’t a carnival. It should be, but it seems that you just can’t have one time when everything in your life is perfect. So although I’m supposed to be the happiest man in the world right now, I’m not. I’m not ungrateful; I’m just not 100% happy.
Anyway, I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Alvaro Montes, and I am a carpenter from Cali, in Colombia. I’m actually not really from Cali itself, but Cali is the biggest town closest to my village, and everybody knows it. You know; it’s like if you’re from Croydon, you’re not really from London but you are. But “the carpenter from Cali” has a nice ring when you say it, no?
I’m actually not really a carpenter either. I do do carpentry, but I’m more what you call a handyman. A very handy man! I can fix anything: furniture, electrics, your kitchen sink, your kid’s bike… anything. You just bring it.
I’ve been learning my trade ever since I was a muchacho. My tio Jose taught me. When I was small, Tio Jose was the handyman in our village. He could fix anything. I used to sit in his little workshop and watch him work. It was so much more fun than going to school. He could see how interested I was, and he would give me little things to take apart. “Nobody is allowed to sit idle in my shop,” he would say with a smile. “You want to sit in here, you fix something.” and he would throw me an electric plug and a screwdriver. I would take the plug apart and put it together again. From the plug we moved up to a toy car, and then a bicycle. I would take them apart, and then I would put them back together again. Sometimes I would even get all the parts in…
That was how I got my first cassette player. It was a battered Philips machine, flat and rectangular with five keys in front. It used to belong to my abuela, but she gave up on it when it stopped working. “It needs a belt,” Tio Jose said. “You could maybe improvise with a rubber band.” I took the toughest rubber band I could find, and just like that I had my first cassette machine. The sound was rubbish, but it was my machine.
It wasn’t only how to fix things that I learnt in Tio Jose’s workshop. This was also the place where I discovered my love for music. Tio Jose always had the radio on while he was working. He would sing along to every song that came on the radio. Always very loudly, always out of tune, and he always got the words wrong – especially with the English songs. For a very long time, I thought the Beatles were singing “Hey, Jew” because that was what Tio Jose used to sing. But his big love – our big love – was salsa. I already mentioned Celia Cruz. And she’s good, but my main man – my hero – is “El Malo”, Willie Colon.
Willie Colon’s music was my big love when I was younger. It taught me about politics; it taught me about life; it taught me all the other things that Tio Jose’s workshop didn’t teach me. But my biggest love of all was – is – la luz de mi vida, Luz.
I was a cheeky boy in school – always looking at the girls who were older than me. Luz was two years ahead of me in school, and she was very popular. All my classmates went to her quinceañera. She looked so beautiful in her white dress. I said to my friends, “The next time she wears a dress like that, it will be at our wedding.” Of course they all laughed at me. But guess who had the last laugh, eh?
To this day, I don’t know how I got Luz to marry me. But Dios mio, I’m glad she did. She kept me out of a lot of trouble when we were together. When I was 19, I had some problems with the Police. I was so angry – at them, at all the corruption going on, at all the people who were ruining our lovely country. I wanted to do something; to change it all. FARC started the year I was born. For a while, I was seriously looking to them as the answer to Colombia’s problems. Thank God Luz is cleverer than I am. Wise woman – she saw where I was headed and she stopped me before I got in too deep. Some of my old friends actually did join FARC; they never forgave me for not joining their revolution. But I trusted Luz and valued her opinion. She said, “stay away.” I did. She supported me when Tio Jose died and I took over his workshop.
We had two beautiful children. Clarita is the eldest; she looks so much like her mama, it’s unbelievable. But she has all my ways of thinking. Victor looks like me but thinks and acts just like his mama. It’s like Luz and I exchanged bodies, or something.
And just when everything was going well, it happened. Luz’s mother lived in another village miles away, and was very ill. We begged her to come and live with us, but she wanted her independence – which meant that every other week, Luz had to take a very long bus ride to go and see her. And then one day, she took the bus and we never saw her again. They say it crashed, but we never saw the wreck. Or any bodies. The driver, his assistant, all the passengers… no sign.
I knew immediately that I had to get away. As much as I love ‘Locombia’ and will always be a Cali boy, I couldn’t stay. In the years that I was building my business, my old ‘friends’ were moving up the FARC food chain – and those guys had long memories. Every business in the village pays FARC a ‘pension’; that’s just how it goes. But I was paying double what the other local businesses were paying. But as long as Luz was with me, I had the strength to stand up to the bullying. With her gone, that would only get worse. And so I gave away everything and brought what was left of mi familia with me to England: Clarita, Victor, my Mami and my hermana Sylvia. We arrived here the same week that Tony Blair became Prime Minister. I thought that was a sign: new life for me I n a country that was also having a new life. What could possibly go wrong?
I do love London. It’s a nice place. But if you’re not careful, London can turn you into the kind of person you don’t like. Everybody keeps to themselves. That’s hard to get used to when you’ve spent your whole life in a small village in a country where we’re all friendly. Back in Cali, I was always trying to solve other people’s problems. But after a year in Londres, I started to avoid people who might need my help. I didn’t even notice that I was doing it – until one hot afternoon when Victor and I were waiting for a bus on the Old Kent Road.
One good thing about having children is that when you start going bad, they can help bring you back to how you should be. If it had just been me on my own at the bus stop that afternoon, I would have just looked the other way the moment I saw that skinny black boy with the torn plastic bag crying bitterly. But l had to have Victor with me! He insisted that I ask the muchacho what he matter was. And so I did. And he told us – when he could stop crying – how his uncle had thrown him out of his house and he had no more family left to go to. And that was how this young African boy called Brima ended up becoming the newest member of our familia.
Thanks to Victor, I gained another son. He’s a good boy. But don’t tell him I said that; he’ll just try to use it to make me allow him to watch MTV. I like my music, but that boy is too small to be watching that channel!
Brima has been a great addition to our home. He reminds me of myself in so many ways, and my heart breaks for both our countries. Some truly great things have happened in my family’s life since Brima joined us… and then, just when everything seemed to be going great for all of us, all of a sudden the Police came to lour home and arrested Brima. They accused him of murdering his old boss at work. I know for a fact that he is innocent, because I was with him at the time they say killing happened – very, very far away. Where? Well, that’s a bit hard to explain…
And now this innocent man is in prison. They have set the bail so high, Victor’s grandchildren will still be paying it. But he is family, and so we’re committed to getting him out. “Todo para la familia,” as they say on that TV show Clarita likes to watch. Bailing him out will be hard – no, it’s impossible. But it’s the only real option I have that doesn’t involve me getting locked away myself.
So if you know half a million people whose doors need fixing, give them my mobile number, por favor…