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Oleta

Oleta wanted to see the donkeys. Our parents said she could on condition Alfredo went with her and when he agreed to go I said I would too.

We kept our bicycles behind the restaurant bins in a lean-to with a corrugated iron roof. No matter how much care we took putting them back we always returned to a tangle of handle bars; when we wrestled them apart the pedals caught in the spokes. I was the least patient. Oleta said I should let Alfredo get them out because we had to be quiet; if we made a lot of noise the old man on the ground floor would bang on his window. Some days he came up the stairs and talked to our father about it. Father didn't tell us off but reminded us to be considerate of others. “He doesn't sleep well. Noise makes him irritated so just remember that.”

The sun was not yet up when we wheeled the bikes across the dirt square where people who came to eat parked. The backwards whir of the chains mixed with the broken static of waking birds. The fields and the sky were flat and grey. In the distance beyond the black shell of the unfinished hotel Oleta said she could hear the sea.

We cycled up the long hill to where the new developments were springing up next to the roundabout. We rode in silence, our thoughts muffled by sleep. Alfredo went in front and peddled slowly so that Oleta could keep up. The world was empty and belonged to us.

The patch of bare land next to the marquee was empty. We cycled round in circles and headed for the cafe. The tables and chairs were not taken in at night so we propped our bikes against the columns and sprawled out like we saw the older boys do in the evening. Oleta asked how long we had to wait and Alfredo said not long. Father had given him money for breakfast.

The owner opened up the glass doors at the same time that a couple of cars drew up. A little later the baker stopped and dropped off fresh rolls in a sack. The owner went round the terrace sweeping up the previous night's litter and the early morning leaves. We lifted our feet as she went under the tables. Alfredo ordered chocolate for Oleta and me and a milky coffee for himself. It was the first time he didn't have chocolate. I asked him if he was trying to be grown up and he said he already was and that if I wanted I could have coffee too. Oleta only wanted half her croissant so Alfredo and I divided the other half. The men from the cars talked to the owner and drank beer with their sandwiches. They asked us our names and where we were from. They knew our grandmother on our mother's side. They talked about the procession and where you had to stand to watch it.

Around eight an old van with a trailer pulled up on the vacant lot. The sun was lighting up the cones on a big old pine like Christmas decorations. Oleta ran towards the trailer. I cycled over with one hand guiding her bike while Alfredo went inside to pay.

There were flies on the donkeys' noses. Every so often one or the other would shake its head. The man let us stroke them and we all went quiet, even Oleta. After we had done we wandered around the marquee. The floor had been strewn with the ends of eucalyptus branches; the lemon scent of the resin came and went in the breeze. The night before we had eaten churros and drunk hot chocolate. A band played popular songs and people danced. There were stalls selling honey and wine and five long tables where you could sit and drink beer and coffee and talk or look around. It wasn't much but enough to draw you in and without knowing why you didn't want to leave.

On the way back my chain came loose. When I tried to jink it back into place the links folded tighter together their teeth meshing in a rigid puzzle. Alfredo offered to help but I managed it on my own. It took ten minutes to straighten it out and feed the loop onto the gears. I wiped my hands on the long white grass leaving ugly smears of dirty brown oil up and down the stalks. We got up speed and freewheeled the rest of the way home.

There are certain slots in a family and they get filled or not but they can't be filled twice. Alfredo liked to take long walks with no particular purpose. Our mother said some people needed space to think and others not so much. Some days Alfredo was gone all day not returning until evening. It was the way it was and Oleta and I accepted it. I knew it wouldn't do any good to ask if I could go with him. When I went off on my own it was because I couldn't untangle the thoughts in my head. But most of the time the three of us stuck together. Alfredo and I enjoyed looking out for Oleta. He said we were responsible and that made us proud though I didn't know why.

One day we were at the river by the old bridge. It wasn't a bridge anymore; only one of the beams was left and the piles on both banks were rotten and broken. The river was always dry in summer so we didn't think about why it had been built or who had used it. That was the first year I could reach the beam and hang on. There was a plan to swing all the way across without touching the ground once.

We heard their voices first. Three boys about Alfredo's age; they were hitting weeds with sticks. They stopped when they saw us and talked quietly so we couldn't hear.

“Where are you from?” called out one of the boys.
“The village. We're staying with our grandmother.”
“Whose your grandmother?”
“Sra. Pereira.”
“Can you walk across the bridge?”
We'd never walked across the bridge. I looked at Alfredo.
“Of course. And you?”
The boy nodded. “Let's do it now. You have to do it standing up. You come over here and when you get here I'll go the other way.”
I sat down next to Oleta and told her not to cry.
Alfredo crossed the bridge. The other boy hesitated but he knew he had to do it too.
“Now the others.”
“No. They're too young.”
The boy nodded. He shook hands with Alfredo and they left.
“Were you scared?” said Oleta.
“Yes.”
“Was he scared?”
“Yes. That's why they left. And the other boys didn't want to do it either.”
“I wanted to do it, ” I said
“I know.”
“I wasn't scared.”
“I know. But they were. It wasn't about the bridge.”
I didn't know how Alfredo understood such things but I knew they were true. I knew there were bigger things than just what I felt and that it didn't matter who could walk across the bridge.
“Tell me what you mean!” said Oleta.
“It's everything; you and Julio and me and the three boys and their families. The long summer and the flies round your ankles.”
Oleta looked as though she would cry again.
“It's not something you have to understand; you just have to be aware that it exists.”
“But what is it?”
“Do you feel different now? That the world has changed.”
“Kind of,” I said.
“I don't,” said Oleta, “at all.”
“You won't forget this afternoon. It doesn't matter you don't know why.”

Oleta said she wanted to go home. We walked round the side of the field even though there was no crop. After a few minutes Alfredo hoisted Oleta onto his shoulders. He kept having to stop to wake her up.

Alfredo told me that time was a ratchet and that meant you couldn't go back. The only warning you had something was about to happen was a slight dimple in space like the sucking in of a wave before it retreats. You know the click is coming. That's the memory. The cogwheel rides up and over the pawl. Click. We have the same words, the same grammar that we have for present and future, and we can describe this thing that just happened; but know we can't affect it. And the more we think about it, the more we drown it in words, the less recognisable it becomes. That's what I'd been taught and never had reason to doubt it.