We met and shook hands for the first time in Chapter One of “A Letter from Madrid: A Cameroonian Student’s Diary.” Today, in Chapter Two, we meet and shake hands with my buoyant and boisterous landlady, Doña Maria, a very pleasant individual, if ever there was any, as curious as a monkey. She gained some form of «celebrity» among her neighbours for hosting a young African student, who smoked like a chimney and, «can you believe it, wrote love letters on torn packets of cigarettes!» Here’s Doña Maria.
No diary entry yesterday. All there is on the open page is a series of finger-stains. That means that I merely fingered the pages of my diary, leaving trails of unwritten thoughts on them.
I now remember what happened. I was getting ready to write something when in walked Doña Maria, my jovial and garrulous landlady. Once that woman is around, forget it; you can hardly concentrate on anything else besides her talk. I could hear her telling whoever it was she was talking to downstairs, how the prices were soaring on the market. What did they want the poor to do when they hike prices every blessed day of the week? she wondered. What a weaver-bird that woman is! She can talk for hours on end.
“¡Señor Basha! ¡Señor Basha!”. That was she pounding on my door and I knew that if I did not open it fast enough, she would drum on it louder and louder. She would shout to me to throw off that cloak of laziness from my back and wake up immediately.
I opened the door and my nostrils were immediately assaulted by a thick and rich odour of perfume.
“¿Qué tál, Señor Basha?” she asked, a smile opening up on her face. She always calls me “Señor Basha”, never Leinteng, which she complains is rather too difficult to pronounce. Her teeth are surprisingly white. She’s one of the very few people I have met during my stay in Europe whose teeth have not bowed to the combined assault of candies, sweets, chocolates and ice-creams. This morning she flashed those teeth at me as she always does.
“Good morning, Doña Maria. I’m fine, thanks”, I said, in reply to her greetings. I then asked her how she was faring. For an answer, she merely pouted her lips and shrugged her shoulders as if to say: “What can really be new these days?”
Her lips were richly coated with rouge. The wrinkles on her fifty eight year-old face were perfectly smoothened over by a meticulous and well-applied set of cosmetics. When she smiles, she looks a lot younger. I’m always taken aback by the child-like enthusiasm her ageing eyes exude. Clinging with amazing tenacity to those small eyes is a vitality which must have been one of the very charming features of her youthful days.
“Would you like me to clean your room for you?” she asked, still smiling. I saw her cheeks, which are already sagging with age, expand with the smile. Without waiting for an answer, she walked up to the window and threw back the curtains. The rush of the light into the room was blinding, forcing me to blink several times before my eyes could get used to it.
The room was hazy with the smoke from my morning cigarettes. I like to smoke lying in bed. She looked at the hazy, paper-strewn room with an air of disapproval. Without waiting for her to put her head-shaking into words, I quickly said: “There’s a paper explosion in her, Doña Maria.”
“What of el cigarillo, Señor? Are you sure this is not a cigarette factory?”
“Oh, come-on, Doña Maria; it isn’t that bad, is it?” I said, feeling a little ashamed of the stuffy room and the ash-tray that was pouring out its contents on the table.
“See for yourself; crumpled up sheets of paper here, cigarette butts there. This is truly alarming!” she said as she emptied the ash-tray in the waste-paper basket at the corner.
“You’re quite a smart lady, Doña Maria”, I said, trying to change the conversation topic as she rushed from the table to the boxes, a dry piece of cloth in hand, dusting everything within reach.
“Smart, did you say? Are you kidding. I’m already too old, Señor.”
“Old! No, Señora; you aren’t that old at all. I’m sure you’ll win the next marathon race in Madrid”, I said, knowing fully well that that was what she wanted to hear.
As usual, those eyes stared at me with astonishment, the kind of expression you’ll expect to see in the eyes of a teenage girl listening to the first whisper of love promises in her ears; perhaps the little girl in Doña Maria showing her head momentarily.
“But, tell me, Señor Basha; how can you possibly write letters on things like these when you have a neat pile of writing paper here?” she asked, her finger sweeping an arc over the paper-carpeted floor. I saw fascination and incredulity holding hands in her eyes. The sacks below her thickly-pencilled eyes expanded as those eyes widened in utter disbelief. Her almost non-existent lips folded into a funnel shape and I could hear a whispering sound of astonishment filtering through them.
Beneath that curiosity-laden voice, floated an un-expressed suspicion that I probably did not know the use of writing paper even though there was what she called a “neat pile” on my table. I know that if she had seen the same thing in the other rooms where Paco, Carlos and Enrique live, she would have merely sighed and deplored the lazy attitude of modern youth. But since she finds them here in my room, she believes they must hold some esoteric significance.
“In Africa, do you write letters on things like this?” She was holding up another piece of paper. This time disbelief was really waltzing round her ageing eyes.
What she had in her hand was a torn packet of Ducados, the cheapest cigarettes in Madrid these days. Ask any student for a cigarette and a crumpled up packet of Ducados is sure to appear from the torn pockets of graffiti-infested jeans, with a few maimed cigarettes peeping out miserably at you.
“What you are looking at, Doña Maria, is a love note. A sad thing you don’t read el inglés, Señora; else you would’ve seen what emotions I have put in that letter. So, handle it with care.”
Her face lit up in amazement for a moment before she roared out in one long and sustained fit of laughter. I saw the tips of her eye-lashes glisten with tears as she reached for a handkerchief in her handbag. With it, she carefully cleaned her eyes. I also felt the fingers of laughter beginning to massage my jaws and before long I too was roaring away just as loudly as she was.
Long afterwards, I could still hear her giggling in the other rooms and I knew that all her neighbours would surely hear about this tenant of hers, a boy from Africa, who writes love letters on torn packets of cigarettes.