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This was when you could still be killed for love

by Jennifer Clement


I grew up in a city where the sky was covered with electrical wires and tram cables so that a web of criss-crossed lines framed the clouds. These wires were always draped with a solitary shoe or a pair of shoes that hung by their laces. It was a practice that nobody could explain. Was it a practical joke? It made it seem that Mexico City spread out across the valley under a sky of abandoned shoes.

In the 60’s and early 70’s Mexico City smelled acrid like open sewage because of the paper mill and its tall smoke stack that let out plumes of smoke and was part of the landscape as if it were one of the volcanoes that surround the metropolis. At this time the paved roads were also used by donkeys and rabid dogs appeared every so often, skulking in doorways, with a frothy saliva around the maw, and with the eyes of human madness.

There were still people who were cross-eyed and many women grew their hair down to their knees. All the streets were two-way and, in some states, the punishment for killing a cow was greater than that for killing a woman.

In these years a Welshman from Mold, Edward Foulkes, founded the Edron Academy in the south of Mexico City where he applied his ideas on education based on his successful work with retarded children. It was at this school that so many children in Mexico, myself included, became British. I went to school with the children of renowned writers, even Nobel Prize winning writers, artists, and the children of diplomats and movie stars. There were some children there who had had very difficult, even criminal, pasts as one of the school’s policies was that everyone was to be accepted.

It was at this school, established in a house on a cobblestones road in the area of San Angel, that we left our Mexican world and learned about sheep shearing, old pence and new pence, and weights in stones. We studied Paterson and MacNaughton’s Approach to Latin and learned vowel “quantities” and inflections by rote and studied the theories behind Celtic ruins.

I walked to school past a house that was fronted by a large cage with two monkeys, past shrubs covered in snails like a fabric of polka dots while I memorized the events during the reign of the Tudors and Stewarts, and even learned to sing ‘Greensleeves’. The walk to school took me past Diego Rivera’s studio and an old abandoned lot where we would go on weekends in search of snakes. Once my brother found a human brain in a jar of formaldehyde in this lot.

In school, we never worked in the Spanish language or learned anything about Mexico. So it felt as if we spent half of our day in Britain and the other half in Mexico. Mexico also existed at recess. We played football, which was actually introduced to the country in the late 1800’s by the Blackmore family who were brewers from Cornwall. At recess we ate mangoes and oranges covered in lemon and sprinkled with chilli powder and only spoke in Spanish.

We smoked cigarettes and pot in the school’s green tiled bathroom, and were deeply disturbed by the poverty that was right outside our school and our homes. Just a walk a few blocks away from the Edron Academy, were the main roads where deformed beggars on handmade carts with wheels pushed themselves around with their hands on the dirty cement ground. Indian women and fire eaters asked for coins at the cross roads. Many of us read Marx, spent our afternoons at the Gandhi bookstore and listened to Silvio Rodriquez on our record players.

It was in these years that a British family from Leeds came to Mexico. The family had been sent here by one of the petrol companies in Tampico. They had two boys, Rupert and Miles, who were enrolled in our school. Their mother, Mrs. Morgan, was a beautiful woman with long blonde hair who wore the most cutting-edge garments from the sixties—maxi skirts, knee-high boots, and a string of leather tied, strung with beads, wound around her forehead. When we went to her house she played Tom Jones and Amen Corner on the record player. She could recite poems by heart and was often lying outside in the garden on a blanket enjoying the Mexican sun and reading Neruda or Yeats. I remember that I once went to the market with her and, as she walked past the piñatas, mounds of peanuts in their shells, the butcher’s stand with the piles of dead chickens and the buckets with fish on ice, ice red with blood, everyone stared at her in silence. Her beauty produced a kind of quiet reverence.

We liked to spend time at Rupert and Miles’ house because their father was always away in Tampico and their mother was seldom home. Their house was in the Pedregal neighbourhood, which is an area of Mexico City built on volcanic stone. The landscape is one of cacti, shrubs and gnarled rock where tarantulas and lizards live in crevices.

At the Morgans’ house, Mrs. Morgan had filled the two porcelain bathtubs with dirt and plants because she felt that bathtubs were like coffins. She told us things like, “Mermaids never wear pearls or underwear” and “I prefer trees to people”. One day she said to us over a lunch of squash blossoms in a green tomato sauce that, “ever since I was three years old I have understood the power of my beauty.”

It took only a few months before we realized that Mrs. Morgan was involved in something dangerous. A very slow shadow erased the sunlight in a dull disappearance and the city seemed shrouded by a cloud that never would rain. Miles and Rupert became sullen and unkempt.

This was before Mexico’s drug trafficking problems and terrible violence had taken over the country. This was before Alejandro González Iñárritu movies. This was before finding severed heads and hands was commonplace, along with the daily killing of policemen, lawyers, soldiers or detectives. This was before corpses appeared on a daily basis with messages written on paper and attached to their bodies and also before the country had become the most deadly in the Americas for journalists.

This was when you could still be killed for love.

At first we noticed that the front doorbell would ring and Mrs. Morgan would jump up off of her waterbed covered with Indian cotton fabrics and run to the front door. Then, she’d come back inside the house and tell us that she’d be back in a few hours. This went on for several weeks until one day she disappeared.

As we learned how Roman roads were built and read about Sir Alexander Fleming everyone knew that Mrs. Morgan had been gone for a few days. When we went to our Latin class with Mr. Foulkes, we knew that Mrs. Morgan had been gone for a week. When we played football and learned about the Battle of Hastings, Mrs. Morgan had been missing for two weeks.

I remember my father, who was a Jew from New York City and who loved Mexico so much that he moved to the country in the early 60’s and never went back to the USA, said that the police in this country were so skilled that they knew exactly what had happened to Mrs. Morgan. He recalled the famous case of the Countess Francesca de Borbon de Scaffa whose jewels had been stolen after she had spent the day at a bullfight. She had come to Mexico to be divorced from the movie director Bruce Cabot.

At school we read La Nota Roja (The Red Report), which was the crime section of the local newspapers. One friend at school recalled the famous case of a family who had been locked up for years by the father. He was a man who sold rat poison in the market. When the father was arrested he said that he had given his children their odd names because he was a freethinker and did not want to give them the names of saints. The children’s names were: Indomitable, Sovereign, Triumph, Good Living and Free Thought.

Six months later we learned that Mrs. Morgan had been having an affair with a neighbour who lived a few doors down from her house. The man was Salvador Duran Robles. It was rumoured that he had been a top general in the army and some said he had been in charge of Mexico’s jails. Nobody seemed to know for sure.

Mrs. Morgan’s body had been found on the outskirts of Mexico City. Some of the students at school remembered that a few weeks before her disappearance she had told us that she had found a butterfly drowned in her coffee.

We learned some of what had happened from one eyewitness who told the newspapers what he had seen.

The story was that this man, Salvador Duran Robles, had taken Mrs. Morgan to a cock fight. It was being held at an arena in a lowlife area of town. The arena was a dusty dirty lot with fold-out chairs arranged in a circle and a few filthy stray dogs in a corner. To one side there was a freezer that contained cokes. Beside the freezer was a table with three large bottles of rum. The men were drinking rum and coke, known as cuba libres, out of plastic party glasses. There were no women present. Mrs. Morgan could see that most of the men had pistols at their waist tucked into their trousers.

First the cocks were weighed in a corner and then they were brought into the middle of the makeshift ring. When the cocks were thrown at each other and Mrs. Morgan saw the steel blades, sharp as knives, lashed to the birds’ spurs sparkle in the flurry of flying feathers, she could not breath. When the bird’s blood spattered her stocking she began to scream. She wanted to leave but her lover held her fast.

As the fight progressed the two birds vomited bile and could hardly hold up their heads. The cock that was left alive, although it was also punctured and mutilated, continued to peck at the feathered cadaver for a few minutes. By this time Mrs. Morgan was weeping and tasting the salt, dust, blood and fear in her mouth. Then the cock pulled itself out of the clearing, dragging its feathers while the metal hooks on his talons left a trail in the dirt. The bird looked straight at Mrs. Morgan with its one remaining marble green eye. Then an emaciated stray dog, which had been watching from the side, moved quickly forward and opened its large jaws around the broken mess of feathers.

It is very easy to die.

It is very easy to die the lover had said. Someone overheard the words.

A few months later the rainy season began. We would sit in class reading our British textbooks, which came to Mexico by boat, and watch the gutters gush with brown water and leaves. It was cosy inside the school, dry and warm. Mr. Morgan and his two boys had gone back to the UK.

After the tragedy, Mr. Foulkes gathered the school together in one of the largest classrooms. And for the very first time he spoke to us in Welsh. He said that sometimes the circumstances demanded that one speak in ones own language. He said: Hawdd clwyfo claf, which he explained meant: It is easy to wound the sick. And then he said, Ni ddaw ddoe yn ol.

Yesterday will not return.