75. Late-Night Radio

SOME THINGS ARE BEST done alone, and in the absence of solitude, it is occasionally necessary to manufacture it. At the Hospital Brit├ínico in Buenos Aires, there are only eleven individual rooms. They’re strictly reserved for patients in the most acute need, without exception. After a minor accident, I found myself in hospital sharing a room with an elderly gentleman called Roberto suffering a stubborn infection following knee surgery. He was a quiet fellow - a little lugubrious, even – but he’d entered hospital for a routine knee operation and subsequently developed a stubborn infection that had kept him in hospital for a week longer than expected. I know from my own grandparents and their friends that the elderly often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid hospitals to avoid such a scenario as this, as post-operative infection is the leading cause of death in hospitals, especially among the elderly. My new neighbour’s wife and son would visit during the day and sit wordlessly beside his bed for hours on end while the old man snored. Sometimes the son would walk over to the window and study the city below, bathed in summer sunshine. In our time together, Roberto also received visits from another elderly friend, during which they talked about nothing other than the hardships of old age. No one ever told us it would be like this, I overheard him say. Not that it would have made a difference. At night Roberto slept with the radio on, which I didn’t mind, although I found his choice of radio rather odd. The problem was, as Roberto explained to me on the second day of our brief cohabitation, there was no reception for any of the stations on the AM dial, so he was unable to tune in to his favourite station, a talkback station with right-wing sympathies. So instead he had to choose a station on the FM dial, which were all musical stations and he was not a musical person – in fact he told me he was half deaf. The FM radio stations of Buenos Aires play many different kinds of music: tango, of course (dance hall and nuevo tango), but also classical, rock (both the contemporary and classic varieties), jazz and even Brazilian music. As for the musical tastes of elderly, right-wing Buenos Aires gentlemen, I would have guessed tango, classical music or even classic rock would have been his preference, but for some reason he chose a station that played the most ghastly American teenage music, every song bouncy and fuzzy and ringing with predictable English lyrics. As if this wasn’t strange enough, I never heard him snore at night, which was a sign that he wasn’t sleeping, as he snored when he slept during the day. Of course, it was difficult to be sure, with the beeps and sighs of the various medical instruments that operated day and night, and with the radio on in the background, so in the morning when we said hello, I’d always ask him if he slept well, and he would shake his head mournfully. One night I woke just after three in the morning with an urge to relieve myself into the plastic bottle the night nurse had left by my bed. Outside the window the city glittered like a jewellery box. Then I noticed the music: no vocals, just a simple, buzzy, oddly syncopated refrain, repeated endlessly, almost like trance music, only very sad – the kind of music you could imagine dancing to at a party with tears in your eyes, asking yourself, why am I crying? I should be happy (a scenario that has occurred to me once or twice). I don’t know if it was the music, or the hour, or the locale but at that moment I thought I heard my neighbour sob, just once or twice. As usual, through the beeping and sighing of the medical machinery it was hard to be certain that what I'd heard was a man weeping in the night, especially given the drugs I was on. The next morning I was discharged. My wife came to take me home and I farewelled Roberto and wished him a speedy recovery. We had been more or less silent neighbours for four nights. On our way out, the head nurse asked me, how did you enjoy your brush with celebrity? I replied I had no idea what she was talking about. Did no one tell you?, she smiled. You were bunking up with Roberto Amor. You mean the old tango singer from the sixties? my wife asked. Yes, she replied, that’s who your husband was sharing with. Then her face changed. A very serious case, she muttered. I'd never heard of him, but my wife said her grandmother had one of his records. So did mine, replied the nurse, two or three even - she was nuts about him. We farewelled the nurse and my wife led me out into the dazzling sunlit street, where we passed a circle of teenagers convulsed with laughter.