THE CHE GUEVARA CLUB
I never knew my parents. My uncle, now a widower, who had married my father’s sister, once told me the story of how my parents met.
My mother was in corporate sales. She was a real jet-setter, travelling from country to country. She was lonely, never having time to settle down, to have a family, or to find someone to share herself with.
It’s important to have something to hold onto in a life of travel; some activity, some idea to give you comfort and reassurance. Sometimes such habits are the only home we have. My mother had something: She was passionate about Latin music. She loved it. It was a source of life to her on her lonely business trips. Wherever she went she would search for some cantina where they played Latin music. The Rumba, the Salsa, whatever she could get. There was hardly a city where she didn’t know of some Latin nightclub, and during the long nights after days of tiring work she could always be found in one, smoking cigarettes and listening to music.
My mother never danced. She hated dancing. She viewed the activity with contempt, as something base. My mother, it seems, was an intellectual of sorts. At any rate she spurned activities which abandoned intellectual reasoning to emotional or carnal expression. This, I think, was how she viewed dancing.
So she would never dance to Latin music, although I am told that its rhythms are particularly suited to that activity. She loved the music not so much for the rhythms as for the words. At least this is what my uncle supposes, on the grounds that instead of dancing, or even listening to the music, she would concentrate her attention on attending to the words and writing them down in a small notebook. She had gradually compiled a small collection of notebooks filled with transcriptions, cross-references, analyses, and commentary.
My uncle had already been married for some years to my father’s sister when my father first met my mother, and although he was never a direct witness of the events he so often described to me in my youth, he always assured me of the great pains he took to discover and corroborate them.
When my uncle told the story of how my parents met, it almost seemed as if I was in the cantina, sitting a few stools away from my mother at the bar. She sits at the bar, jotting down the lyrics of the song that is playing in her own type of short hand. She has dark hair, shoulder length, and wears thick-rimmed glasses. She wears a beret and smokes cigarettes, and concentrates intently on the lyrics, dissecting them, divining in them some meaning known only to herself. A man approaches her, broad shouldered, smiling with a genial and open countenance. He invites her to dance. She looks up, fixes him with a cold, repellent look. She ignores the question and turns once again to her notebook. The man is stung, but not discouraged. He smiles and turns away, saying before he leaves, “You like Che Guevara?”
My mother’s pen stops its wavering course over the paper. She looks back up to him. A flash of hunger enters her eyes.
Sometime later the man, my father, no longer smiling his warm smile, sits in a dark room, lit only by a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. His countenance is sickly pale. He is perspiring, breathing in low shallow breaths. He is not alone in the room. My mother sits across the table, which bears a silent radio and a messy ashtray. Some men sit silently around the table, playing cards and smoking cigarettes. Some rifles are leaning against the table, close at hand. An old man, a large gun slung over his shoulder is standing over my father, breathing cigarette smoke into his face. My father sits silently. He is wearing a beret, like everyone else in the room.
“Each member lasts about a year before they go,” the old man says. Go where? Do they die? If so, how long will the old man himself last? These are the questions which must have arisen in my father’s sluggish mind, but at the moment he was unable to give them speech. His lips were numb. Just then, the old man leans close and breathes with nicotine-stained breath: “I’ll take you out if I see you start to go.” He laughs hoarsely. The two younger men at the table join in. My father looks anxiously at my mother. She casts her eyes down. It’s too late: he’s stuck.
And so my father was initiated into the Che Guevara Club. What this Club does I have never been able to discover. They never entered the news, never, to my knowledge, attempted a revolution. What was clear was that they were in the habit of carrying rifles, and seemed unafraid of using them. I never learnt what my mother’s connection with the Club was, nor of my parent’s exploits since joining it. It seems certain that it was my mother who introduced my father to the Club, and not the other way around.
I never knew my parents. I’ve been told that they died soon after I was born. Later, when my uncle told me of the Che Guevara Club, it seemed certain that their deaths were in some way connected with the Club.
The Club. It has always been a mysterious and sinister entity to me, impossible to trace, or to find any record of. While at university abroad I spent long hours in the library. I read all of Che Guevara’s books, and almost all of the books about him. I searched through newspaper archives, spent hours on the internet. I even wrote to his surviving relatives. I never asked them directly about the Club. It seemed too nebulous, and besides it was too incriminating a subject to begin a correspondence with. I always began with a flanking move, using subterfuge and disguise. I would ask them theoretical questions, like “How did your father develop his revolutionary theory?” or “Do you think his approach has any relevance in today’s modern world of multiple discourses?” or “What is Che Guevara’s legacy?” I received many polite yet fervent responses indicating no little faith in his relevance for today’s world. They admired him immensely, and denounced modern day capitalism and western imperialism. All very interesting, but not what I was looking for.
I kept my search secret. It became a private hobby. I told no one. No one except a girl I met at university. It was perhaps an unwise move, but at the time it seemed harmless enough. She asked me what kept me for so long in the library, and why I could not spend more time with her. I laughed, perhaps a little flattered, and replied, “Why, I’m searching for the Che Guevara Club,” in a mock mysterious tone. “What’s that?” she asked cheerily. Continuing in a dramatic and dark tone I replied, “It’s a secret organisation, hidden from the world, and intent upon total revolution!” Then we both laughed and never spoke of it again.
All of this happened only a few months ago. Recently I returned to my uncle’s house for the vacation. My uncle is now an elderly man. He lives with a close friend of his. The pair are fine, if frail, old gentlemen; truly considerate hosts. At that time my uncle and his friend – I’ll call him Manuel – had arranged to take some time off work at the bank to take me on a trip to the countryside.
One morning, perhaps a week before the trip, I walked with my uncle and Manuel to the bus stop. It was a lovely walk, and the two old men were in high humour, truly delighting in each other’s company and looking forward to our upcoming trip to the countryside. “This man,” said my uncle as he placed his hand upon Manuel’s shoulder, “this man is my very good friend. One day my boy you must have such a friend as this.” Manuel, who is an absent-minded sort, had clearly been thinking of something else, for when he felt my uncle’s embrace he turned, as if waking up from some day dream and smiled asking “Hmmm?” My uncle and I laughed and changed the subject. It truly filled my heart with pleasure to see such a merry companionship. I returned home in good spirits and sat down to watch some television. I had not been watching long when the phone rang.
When I answered it, there was silence on the other side. I heard some breathing though, and also a scraping noise, like chairs being dragged across the floor, but no answering voice. It is always disconcerting to receive calls like these. Generally they are treated as an irritating waste of time. Even after you hang up you remain annoyed, if only for a few minutes. You cannot help wondering who phoned you, and why, having done so, they chose to remain silent. I thought that this was one such telephone call, and was about to hang up when a harsh croaking voice spoke: “Hola compañero! Busca no mas, son los Guevaras!”
I was stunned. These words – their effect upon me – is difficult to describe. I felt as if I was choking, as if my speech had been taken from me. I forgot to breathe, and stood there mouthing silently like a fish out of water. I stood holding the phone dumbly for about a minute when the mysterious speaker, evidently concerned, uttered swiftly: “You are afraid. Do not worry. We’ll send some men to look after your place,” and he hung up.
As you can imagine, these last words, far from consoling me, threw me into a renewed panic, but not the silent, paralysing panic I had felt earlier. After he switched off I burst through the house, locking the doors and drawing the curtains. Afterwards I went to the upstairs rooms and spent the rest of the afternoon peeping out of drawn curtains.
When my uncle and Manuel returned I decided to say nothing about the phone call. Under different circumstances I would have told my uncle about it, for all that I had ever learnt about the Che Guevara Club I had learnt from him. It was guilt rather than fear which prevented me from revealing the news of the strange and disturbing telephone call. I had wracked my brains all that afternoon trying to figure out how the Che Guevara Club had found me, and how they had known that I had been searching for them, or at least for some concrete evidence of their existence. Only one solution occurred to me: the girl from university. Somehow or other she must have blabbed.
It’s true, there was no way of knowing whether she had some direct connection with the Club or if she had simply spoken too much and revealed my researches unwittingly to some agent of the Club in innocent, if unguarded, conversation. At any rate it no longer mattered. The responsibility was mine alone. I took up the search for the Club, revealed as much to my girlfriend, and now I had brought them upon my uncle’s head. There was no other explanation.
While I remained silent, the old man had perceived the shadow that had fallen over me. Even Manuel was shaken from his reveries to give me a few kind words. The next morning at the bus stop he gave me a slip of paper with a list of names and phone numbers, “These are the numbers of some friends of mine should you become bored while we’re at work.”
That afternoon, as I waited in the house for my uncle and Manuel to return from work, I beheld that which I had been dreading ever since I received the strange phone call. I was sitting on the first floor balcony keeping watch when I saw four figures emerge from opposite points of the lonely courtyard in front of our house. They converged at a point just in front of the door. I knew at once that they were from the Che Guevara Club. All four men had rifles slung over their shoulders.
I saw that one of the group was an old man, no doubt the very same who had spoken to me on the phone. He stood there croaking instructions to his companions: two tall and strong looking men with short black hair which had been well greased, and a boy with a cloth cap who looked about fourteen years of age. I crouched low on the balcony, both in an attempt to conceal my presence and in the hope of discovering the matter of their conference, but before I could hear anything they stopped talking and approached the door directly beneath the balcony. They proceeded to bang loudly upon the door. As they pounded at the door the old man shouted: “Open the door! Open at once! In the name of the revolutionary council we demand entrance!”
I need not tell you that I had no intention whatever of allowing this crew into the house of my uncle, but their incessant pounding had awoken in me the fear that they might knock the door down and forcibly gain entry. What might have occurred then I dared not imagine. Things were beginning to look grim. Under the circumstances I thought it best to try to outsmart them, so, standing at the balcony, I called down loudly: “Look out there! There are the cops!”
It was a simple trick, but it appeared to work, at least for the time being. The group stopped pounding at the door and quickly dispersed to opposite corners of the courtyard; all except the boy, who remained near the door as if keeping watch. Soon he too disappeared down the colonnade, probably to report to his friends that the police had not come.
My uncle and Manuel arrived from work shortly afterwards. This time I could not conceal my encounter with the Che Guevara Club, and related to the old men all that had occurred in the past few days. My ruse had bought us a little time, but I had no doubt that they would return the following day, and this time they would not be put off so easily. In some consternation I asked my uncle what we were going to do. “What are we going to do? We’ll stay our ground. We won’t be driven out!”
“Hear Hear!” cried Manuel.
I admit that I was surprised and delighted by these courageous words, and upon their bold utterance I felt a surge of ferocity and courage well up within me. The fear was still there, assuredly, and my heart raced with anticipation, but now it had become slightly transformed, as almost to resemble excitement or exhilaration. Previously I had thought of nothing more than running and hiding from this strange and unsettling club. Now I almost exulted in the thrill of facing them and of destroying them once and for all.
That night I slept for about five hours and awoke early the next morning refreshed and in a strange mood. None of my former excitement, even eagerness, had left, but it had become subdued by a prevailing solemnity, a cool level-headedness as the old men and I discussed our plan of action.
We had no guns in the house so were at some disadvantage. My uncle came up with the following plan. Our house was located in the city centre near the cultural district. Not far away was the war museum, stocked with relics from the days when our island was colonised, including rifles and an old cannon. If we could make it to the museum we would be well armed to take on the Che Guevara Club. Moreover, the museum would afford us an excellent defensive position from which we could easily withstand even the most desperate attack. This struck us as the best course of action. We still had to get to the museum, and it was highly probable that the Che Guevara Club held the courtyard, but we all agreed that it was worth the attempt.
I insisted that we arm ourselves with whatever weapons we had in the house, just in case we were attacked before we reached the museum. The two old men saw the sense in this suggestion and readily agreed. Over the years I had created a small collection of traditional Chinese weapons, including a long spear, a staff, two short staffs, and a curved sword. Not much use against rifles, but better than nothing. My uncle and Manuel took the short staffs, while I carried the remaining weapons.
Before leaving I went to my room to put on my green trainers. I had worn these trainers when I was still practicing the martial arts. Now they were old and worn, but they fit perfectly, and as I put them on I felt a sort of martial spirit rise up within me. I thought to myself: “If I die today let me die in glory, in the midst of a ferocious and unquelled attack.” And so I resolved and hardened my mind to do battle.
The courtyard appeared empty as we left the house, locking the door behind us. We crept to the right-hand side of the courtyard, which was lined by a colonnade. I took the lead, creeping in a low square stance, filled with a keen and alert spirit. Manuel and my uncle crept up close behind. We had crept only a few meters down the colonnade when, between the columns, at the adjacent side of the courtyard, we sighted the Che Guevara Club. They had not yet seen us when my uncle, filled with indignation, uttered a loud challenge.
“Aha!” He cried, and Manuel followed suit crying: “Aha!”
I was not upset that the old men had given away our position. On the contrary, I almost reveled in the challenge, although I uttered no cry myself. My attention was focused on the movements of the enemy.
Only three members of the Club were apparent: the boy was nowhere to be seen. I did not concern myself with him though. As soon as they heard us, the Club went into action. The old man remained where he was, but he knelt down and lifted his rifle. In the mean time the two younger men, the men with greased hair, had turned the corner of the colonnade and were now marching towards us swiftly and apparently confident of their victory. As they marched towards us they were loading their rifles.
Manuel and my uncle were crouching near the column directly behind me, taking shelter from the old man at the far end of the courtyard. As the two young men approached us they began to cry aloud “Aha! Come on then! Come on! Now we’ve got you!” Goading and stinging them, so that they began marching towards us faster and more aggressively. While the two old men were calling thus I grabbed hold of one of their short staffs and waited silently at the base of the column just in front of them. I waited, all the time my uncle and Manuel calling louder, and the two young men approaching faster and nearer. They approached ever nearer.
By now one of the young men had already loaded his rifle and was about to fire. Just at that moment, I flipped up the short staff and flung it at him. It twirled swiftly in the air, and struck him just between the eyes, knocking him unconscious. After this, I ran forward, driving my left shoulder into the second young man and knocked him to the ground. Manuel and my uncle now surged forward and began cudgeling the two young men with their short staffs and kicking them with their heavy boots.
A shot rang through the courtyard immediately reminding me that we were still in imminent danger, at least while the old man could still take pot shots at us from the far end of the courtyard. Clutching at the curved scimitar, I raced around the colonnade towards the old man.
The old man was still reloading his rifle as I rounded the corner of the colonnade. I raced towards him and slashed at his belly in a vicious arc with the scimitar. He doubled over and collapsed on the ground. The blow, though swift and powerful, failed to draw any blood. The blade of the scimitar was blunt, the sword being little more than a show-piece. I struck at his prostrate figure a few more times, each time harder than the next, but the blade failed to cut him. I threw the scimitar aside, picked up his rifle and proceeded to give him a few sound blows with the butt end of the rifle.
My uncle and Manuel soon arrived shoving the badly bruised and beaten young men before them. When they arrived, the two old men knocked the backs of the young men’s knees with their staffs, forcing them painfully onto their knees. I dragged the old man to a kneeling position and, as soon as I saw that he had recovered his senses, proceeded roughly to interrogate him. Unfortunately, I hardly allowed him time to answer my questions. I was now fully flustered, and highly indignant with him for firing shots at us.
“Who do you think you are?” I cried, slapping his head. “Why are you here?” I then asked, and gave him another few blows. I thought of the stories my uncle had told me, of the years of frustrated research I had spent on this Club, and a fresh wave of ire took possession of me. “Where are my mother and father?” Another flurry of strikes. “You’ve taken them hostage. I demand to know what you’ve done with them.”
At this point one of the younger men spoke up: “Do not harm us. It was the old man’s idea.”
I don’t know why he volunteered this information. Up to that point, my attention had been fixed solely upon the old man. I was hardly concerned with the younger men. But, at this outburst, I had ceased striking the old man long enough for him to utter some sort of confession.
“The person we kidnapped,” he croaked hoarsely, “your mother, was my daughter.”
“What?” I uttered numbly.
“She was my daughter. These two men are your cousins.”
These words seemed to pour some sticky substance into the workings of my mind. If my mother was this man’s daughter, then was he not my own grandfather? And if these two young men were my cousins, had I not, therefore, been attacking my own relations?
“But why were you firing upon us?” I asked, remembering my former indignation. “Why have you been terrorising me? Why did you try to kill me?”
“We weren’t trying to kill you,” the old man sighed wearily. A large bruise was beginning to form on the side of his face where I had hit him with the butt end of the rifle. “We don’t have real bullets. We were firing blanks.”
Blanks. They had been firing blanks. I was now in a state of some confusion, mingling, as it were, with a growing sense of guilt for having dealt so roughly with the old man. After all, could not his story have been true? Could the Che Guevara Club not have been constituted of members of my own family? And was it completely implausible that, unaccustomed to open and frank dealings, this entire display, this strange hoax, was nothing more than an awkward attempt, no less sincere and heartfelt for its bumbling clumsiness, to get together and reunite the family?