The first real sign of warlike belligerence Jeremy noticed, apart from blatant rudeness towards his English Self, was the deteriorating state of the bedding in his room. Before Pinochet’s detention in London, Catalina would change the sheets every three days but a week and a half had passed and the sheets stank. He knew his daily consumption of beer and fags was not helping but still the cleanliness of his bed should not be subject to the changing judicial circumstances of an old dictator. He wanted to restore order himself but he did not know where Catalina kept the extra pillow cases or the sheets and heaven forbid he tried to speak to her. Juan, on the other hand, was all growls and avoidance. He even took to leaving the table as soon as Jeremy sat down for breakfast. Juan would have probably slapped or punched in the face at some point if it wasn’t for the exchange program committee which was paying Jeremy’s bills and much of Juan’s mortgage. Luckily, the old bear had exercised control up to that point though the undercurrent of hate and hostility was driving Jeremy bananas. Juan would spend the days walking around muttering angrily under his breath and shouting violent insults at the TV every time Pinochet appeared on the news and the general was everywhere. Every single news channel in the country reported the ins and outs of Augusto’s case and the legal challenges to his extradition case to Spain. The more he watched the more Juan hated England and by extension, Jeremy. He even started to question the gratefulness of his beloved Thatcher and accused English people of being two-faced amoral sons of dogs. When Chilean Anti-Pinochet asylum seekers appeared on the screen denouncing the General, he would pull his hair and kick his slippers around. Watching him was nerve-wracking. Though the childish outbursts of the mad Patriarch were expected. What was more disappointing was Catalina’s sudden cold shoulder. She had not directed a single word towards him after the arrest. She stopped stocking up the fridge and would not wash his plates. Gone also was the delicious fruit, the oily avocado spreads, the fresh apricot sponge cakes and the infinite variety of cereals and exotic fruit juices she would load the table with. During the weeks that followed the incident Jeremy would go to UNI with an apple and a slice of old bread as his only collation. He knew she was baking and cooking and hiding food in their room but there was nothing he could do about it. Catalina would not even bother to remove the evidence of their secret banquets. Jeremy was persona non-grata. No more washing clothes obviously and definitely no beer nor wine to be seen. Though he was pretty sure Juan was perennially drunk during that period. Who knew what the maddened bear was capable of? He would have to move.
His home environment was deplorable but Lula’s absence was the main catalyst for the attack of full blown misery he was experiencing. He had tried interrogating Miguel and Ulises but they had sworn they had no clue. Fuentes had told him to bugger off and stop thinking about Chilean pussy. Where the demonios was she? After all, the kiss was all her making and though he was obviously delighted but had not asked for a single thing. Why did she disappear? What the hell was going on?
Jeremy attended classes that week and consumed De Aguilar lessons with special attention. They studied the Trojan Wars and the fate of Paris, Hector and Achilles. He felt like Lula’s rejection was the Trojan horse which would open in the middle of the night and infiltrate the last remnants of his hope. He also felt bonded with Paris and understood how he would risk his whole empire for Helen’s beauty. He basically could think of nothing else but his Chilean goddess and most of what he studied about the Iliad he never remembered again. On the Friday after class Miguel approached him and initiated conversation with the gringo. He felt sorry for the state of gloom Jeremy was evidently immersed in. He had not even bothered to change his T-shirt in weeks.
-Qué pasa hombre? –asked Miguel as he patted Jeremy on the back. Miguel’s hands were thick and strong like two solid logs.
-Nothing. It’s these people in my home. It’s a war.
-The hosts. They driving me nuts. They hate England now because of Pinochet.
-Do you want us to pay them a visit? –threatened Miguel.
-No. No. Just want to get out.
-This weekend we are going to Valle del Elqui –informed Miguel with a smile.
-Valle del what?
-Elqui weón. Place with most stars in the planet.
-What you mean most stars? Stars are out there.
-I know weón pedantico where the chucha stars live but the observatories are all in Cerro Tollolo, in Mamamuca in Vicuña. The Americans put eyes in the sky in the valley because there you see them best. At night you look up and all is white, a white tent of stars. Imagine a fucking ceiling of shining estrellas.
-Stars are for insecure people –responded Jeremy rudely -Is Lula coming? That’s all I want to know.
-No Lula is not there weón. Ulises knows a guy who rents his chabola. We are going to smoke hierba and drink beers and sing to the Pacha mama. They say the Valley is the energetic centre of the planet. There are hundreds hippies there, doing yoga, reiki, naked, singing and throwing Tarot cards.
-I don’t believe in energy fields.
-Neither do I weón but no one has more fun than the hippies. Maybe we find a nice gringa polola for you.
-I don’t want a gringa. Where is Lula?
-Lula is not for you weón –complained Miguel –she is married to Marx hombre.
-You saw how she kissed me.
Miguel started to laugh.
-She was drunk weón. Drunk like a blind trompo and probably thanking England. Take her off your mind. Lula no pololea con nadie.
-What does that mean?
-She does not date hombre. She is with older men anyways. Men with lives, professors.
-Professor Fuentes?! –Screamed Jeremy.
All of the other students stopped in their conversations and stared at Miguel and Jeremy. Miguel got him by the arm and ferried him out of the lecture room and into the corridor.
-Shut the boca hombre. Fuentes no. What do I know? Men with professions.
The idea of Lula and Fuentes together sent shock waves throughout his system. He could not digest the information. The Chielean goddess with the mad professor? No way. Though he could see the attraction of Fuentes. He himself had been struck hard by his non-conforming sizzling energy. Could Lula make love to him? The possibility was too painful to bear.
-I am coming –assured Jeremy in a sudden change of heart.
-To the valley?
-Good weón. They have the best wine in Chile too. Those mountains have been brewing alcohol since the Incas.
-The Incas drank wine?
-No weón. They made chicha. The best maize beer in the world and strong as fuck but now it’s all wine to sell to the gringos.
-I need to get wasted –assured Jeremy –this is driving me nuts.
-What? –asked Miguel.
-Lula. Pinochet. The whole mess.
-Stop being crazy. Lula is not with Fuentes.
-You are one hell of a loco gringo. I thought English had ice in the veins and Pinochet will pay. Did you hear they stop the appeal? He is going straight to España.
-I will have to leave the house if that happens. Juan will murder me.
-Milicos culiaus –responded Miguel spitting at the floor –let’s go.
-The valley it is.
When Jeremy told me about the stars at the valley of Elquí I thought he was exaggerating. He had developed a propensity towards hyperbole and linguistic embroidery through the consumption of psychotropics and an innate desire to avoid his grim and unappealing socio-political reality. I thought the tent of white shimmering globes above Vicuña he described was probably a deluded version of a starry night at the beginning of spring. I was convinced stars were pretty much the same anywhere in the world as long as you found a clear sky and an absence of human settlements. I had witnessed my share of star-infested skies in Goa and Scotland and believed I could not be impressed. But Vicuña was nothing like I had seen before. Only a few months after his description of the valley I found myself in the exact location feeling awe-struck, ashamed and in complete bewilderment before the spectacle of shimmering light that appeared in the sky. Jeremy had assured me that only the poetical wizardry of Pablo Neruda could describe and do justice to the sparkling, mysterious, almost ominous shimmers of light which appeared in the valley at night. I laughed his comment off and attributed it to Jeremy’s deteriorating mental health. But the fucker was right. Now trying to describe what I saw in the sky I realise that only a Chilean master of poetry could do the scene justice. How the hell do you put celestial perfection into the scientific English language? All I can say is that I had never witnessed anything in nature before that challenged my complete and utter atheism. I did not even have a drop of wine that night. I stopped smoking. I forgot my parent’s relationship. The Birmingham Review Poetry Contest fell a hundred places in my list of priorities. I forgot every woman I ever dated had dumped me first. I got on my knees and thanked Jeremy for introducing me to the Valley of Elquí.
I even spend a night in the same hut where Jeremy, Miguel, Ulises and a couple of other Chileans students smoked weed and drank wine in the spring of 1998. It was owned by a dwarf called Pacho who grew organic marihuana, knew how to order and prepare the drug Peyote and played the bongos better than the most badass Cuban Son fucking God of percussion in the Latin venues of New York. Pacho was married to a Chilean woman whose long black would challenge Rapunzel’s mane for beauty and length. It hang all the way to her ankles. Her name was Elena and she sang with beautiful precision and grace. Her voice echoed across the valley like a flight of pink birds in the mainly green and ochre background. When Jeremy heard her sing he wept inconsolably certifying the fact that his character had changed since he was in Chile. After the crying Miguel mentioned he did not see Jeremy as a gringo any more. The couple had a child called Esteban. He was a cheery nine year old who joined in passionately with an Ukele when his parents sang. The musical formation was surreal, fascinating and sounded awesome. Much better than many acclaimed Indie Bands Jeremy had seen in the Leeds underground. The unusual family lived pretty much in the middle of nowhere, in the core the valley surrounded by trees and rock and a couple of neighbouring houses kilometres away. They survived off the fruits of their vineyard and from renting out a couple of rooms at their hut. It was a sought-after location in La Serena Academic world as the hut was situated in the veins of the valley with one of the most sublime vantage points of the Chilean stars in the whole country. Ulises knew the family well and when the group of travellers arrived after a three hour bus ride through the most dangerous mountain roads Jeremy had ever experienced, they were greeted with a feast of vegetables, rice and chicken that was enjoyed in their garden at sunset with the glorious Andes surrounding them from all angles. Jeremy ate like a pig. The weeks of conflict with Catalina had left him ravenous and malnourished. He could not even digest the beauty around him until he satisfied his most basic desires. After dinner they all gathered around Pacho and Elena. They played a mixture of Chilean folk and Americana which left all the students gobsmacked and in awe of both the setting and their hosts. Jeremy thought they were actual angels. For an instant he forgot about Lula and thanked the Gods of Ancient Greece for promoting the development of music and culture. He also thanked the Incas for keeping the valley in such mint condition. Finally he thanked Miguel and Ulises for bringing them there.
-Do you think if more people listened to great music there would be less war and death? –asked Jeremy.
-I wonder what Augusto liked?
-The ogre like Julio Iglesias –assured Ulises.
-Who? –inquired Jeremy.
-Julius Churches –replied Miguel –he is more businessman than singer.
-It probably sucks! –commented Jeremy.
-It so bad that they used it to torture socialists during the dictatorship. Pinochet knew lefties hated it so he would tell the tortures to blast it off the chucha speaker during their sessions. He said it was the best music in the world.
-There is a war in music too –sentenced Miguel.
-What do you mean?
-The chucha milicos want to silence music which reminds them how wrong they are.
-Like anything new and deep weón.
-Would they like this?
-So much beauty would make their testiculos blow up.
Jeremy tried to laugh quietly. Pacho and Elena continued playing into the dusk. Pacho’s percussion was melodic. His rhythms were so varied and his touch so light that he seemed to be harmonising with Elena’s voice. Meanwhile Esteban strummed gentle mayor seventh chords which were both cheerful and nostalgic at the same time. It was as if they had captured the scenery in music; the languid trees, the bulky green undergrowth, the dangling braches of the vineyard and the protruding black grapes. Elena was the clear violet sky and her voice mutated the shapes of the clouds. The students were silent. They drank wine and stared into the distance. For a moment they seemed devoid of political views. Jeremy thought of Juan. Would his anger diminish listening to beautiful songs under the gas cloud of stars of the Valley? Would his frustration cease? Would Catalina relinquish her domestic warfare?
-I wonder where Lula is –uttered Jeremy almost unconsciously remembering for an instant Miguel’s comment concerning her appetite for older men.
-One day –whispered Ulises trying not to interrupt the magnificent singing –one day you remember this and hit yourself in the head with a guitar.
-What on earth are you on about? –inquired Jeremy angrily.
-What he is trying to say weón is that these things only happen once. The real valley escapes while you trying to hunt girls.
-I wonder what Fuentes would say about that –replied Jeremy.
-Fuentes is a loco fome –sentenced one of the other students –he once ask us to write an essay about wanting to culiar Bambi.
-No?! Fuck Bambi? –checked Ulises in surprise.
-Si. Si. To coger in Bambi.
-I seen him singing to a cassette player once –assured Miguel.
-Es el posmodernismo –assured another student.
-Shhh! Callaros culiaus. They still singing.
Miguel passed the spliff to Jeremy and he inhaled the warm smoke as deeply as he could. He felt it travel down his throat and into his chest and out again. He wanted both to evade himself and partake more deeply of the night around him. He wanted to lose himself in the music and partake of the stars. When he looked above it seemed like a regular clear spring starry night but the moment he walked to the back of the hut to take a leak he realised he was in a very particular spot of the earth. He looked above and lost his breath completely. The effects of the pure marihuana were kicking in too and through the brain haze he sensed, for a slight instant, that he was standing right beneath a window to the fucking cosmos. It was then he thought of Neruda and realised that if he ever wanted to describe the scene he would have to study poetry for the rest of his life and that might not even do it. The feeling of being stunned by immensity was colossal. He started to feel an uncontrollable urge to remove all his clothes and walk into the fruit trees. The innumerable stars and radiant half-moon illuminated the shrubs and bushes around him. They looked like a stage and he felt he was the protagonist of a cosmic play. For the first time in his life he felt he was the sole consciousness of the planet and he belonged to the entirety of the valley and by extension to all the bloody universe. He breathed in deeply and started to undress. The night was warm and even the slight breeze of the remnants of winter did not dissuade him. He was in his underpants when he started to walk. Into the bushes. Into the shrubs. Into otherness. In the background he could hear the divine music of Pacho and his family echo through the night air. He thought of Juan and Catalina and their faces blurred with the trees. Augusto was gone too and just when he was about to feel elevated and free, the vision of Lula’s face entered his consciousness. This one was harder to dissolve. He tried to look back at the stars but Lula was still there. He breathed deeply. Touched his hair and his chest to strengthen the bond with his physical moment. But somehow the peace was gone. The connection with the cosmos. He stopped under an apricot tree and wept. Perhaps she was he war.