Character: Astrid de las Nieves, freelance cemetery caretaker
Hello Astrid. It's great we're getting this chance to find out a bit about you. Tell us about your family.
We're a humble family of limited means but we're close. My son Hector, 33 years old and my daughter Constancia, 28, live with me and we take care of each other. Their father, the organ grinder spent his last night under our roof 12 years ago, when I kicked him out for being unfaithful. That was hard and I was lonely and hurt for such a long time. But there's a limit to what a woman can put up with. I'm proud of Hector, who has a good tourism job in downtown Santiago. Constancia runs a little dress store in a popular shopping district. I'm disappointed that she didn't follow in my footsteps but she has an unhealthy fear of cemeteries, so what could I do? My parents died many years ago so it's just me and the kids now because I didn't have any brothers or sisters.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Well, there was never any question that I would follow in my mother's footsteps and become a cemetery caretaker. My mother freelanced at Patio 62 all her life and when I was a little girl I often went to work with her. She taught me how to water the plants, clean the niches, and talk to the patrons. She counselled me about what to watch for inside the cemetery walls and it became a second home for me. I never dreamed of having another job. I don't know, maybe I liked being at the cemetery so much because I could be with my mother and maybe part of the reason I still like it is because I feel she's there with me every day since she passed on. And anyway, my best friend has worked at the cemetery since she was a girl too. Why would I want to do anything else?
What are you passionate about these days?
Oh, well, these days I have a special interest. I shouldn't even really talk about it because it's rather unconventional and so I've been keeping it a secret. But I can give you a hint. The fact is that I've become really close with the ghost of a very famous person. As you know, there's no shortage of famous people buried in Santiago's General Cemetery but this one is very special. And we've developed quite a relationship, if I do say so myself. If I had to admit it, I'd say that I'm almost obsessed by the man even though most of the time, I manage to keep my wits about me. Let's leave it at that. Well, except I can also tell you that I'm passionate about old love songs from the 70s.
Are you a religious person?
Of course. I mean, I don't know anyone who isn't Catholic. Normally I pray to the Virgin but in recent months I've discovered the powers of San Expedito. I feel that everything has come together since I began praying to him. Truth be told, I bought several San Expedito trinkets from 'Seven Hairs'. At first I thought Seven Hairs was just trying to make money from me, that the saint was a scam. But honestly, San Expedito is a miracle-maker. I would highly recommend him.
Have you ever been in love? If so, how many times?
Well, when I was just a girl I thought I would only fall in love once, and that the man I loved would somehow turn me into a princess. Of course he'd be like a prince. And sure enough, when I fell in love with the organ grinder, he promised me romance and riches beyond my imagination. I really was in love with him and although he slacked off in the romance department after the first year, and even though we were poor, I felt complete and was happy to have his children. I honestly believed we'd live out all our days together. But then he cheated on me. And it apparently it wasn't just the once, either. My heart was so broken that I thought I'd never be able to love again.
And now, along comes this new man, this sure bet, the type that can't ever be unfaithful. And I allowed myself to love again. So, yes, I've been in love twice. And right now my love will last until I die. I can feel it in my bones. So the answer is yes, two times.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
You know, they'd be surprised if they could see my feet. I have the softest, most elegant feet you can imagine. I pamper them and take such good care that I should want to show them off. But I don't. I'm shy that way. My feet, and of course, my secret love affair... that would definitely be a surprise. Knowing about the affair would probably send some people running the other way. But one day I'll let it be known and I'll make them understand.
You just won a huge lottery what is the first thing you'll buy?
No question. Of course I'd buy a new house. This one's been hit badly by two earthquakes now. Not to mention the tremors that occurred in between and shook a few more things loose. You know we've made repairs as best we can, but there simply isn't enough money to do a proper job of it. Oh, but I'd never move from this spot. I'd just rebuild in the same place. And with lottery winnings I could build separate quarters for Hector and Constancia. We'd just extend the house out into the back patio. No one would have to move anywhere but we'd all have a bit more privacy.
I'd help some of the neighbours too. We're all in the same boat you know. We're all happy with the bit of earth we have and wouldn't change it for the world because... well obviously, because this is home. But it would be nice to make some basic improvements, prop up the foundations and things, you know? Nothing too fancy, just quality.
What book are you reading now?
I'm not reading any book. I haven't read a book since I went to school because books are expensive. I have enough trouble finding money for rice and tea and treating myself to the odd cigarette. Actually, though, us Chileans are proud of our poets like Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral and Niconar Parra. But most of us can't afford to buy their books and borrowing from the library is more hassle than I have time for. Yeah, I guess I really don't have time to read. Let's say that.
Hard Bed Hotel abounds in details gleaned from interviews with cemetery caretakers and imagery from countless visits to Santiago General Cemetery. Incorporating contemporary myths into an offbeat plot that's peppered with magic realism, bizarre characters rise up to romp the sacred grounds and escape into Santiago's poor neighbourhoods.
When a major earthquake heaves a washed-up Latino rock star into the path of a cemetery caretaker she falls head over heels with his ghost and all he knows is that the show must go on.
After the quake leaves him homeless, Juan Bonifacio (aka Jhonny Pretty, irresistible blue-eyed 70s singing idol) sets up new digs in the family mausoleum. Astrid de las Nieves is convinced that Jhonny’s ghostly condition renders him incapable of promiscuity and heart all aflutter, she decides a relationship is not only her dream come true, it’s their shared destiny.
Nothing is as it seems in this twisted Latin tale – rock star come ghostly indigent; pickpocket come tourism executive; shop owner come purveyor of the saints, con artist come plastic surgeon; meddling ghost come guardian angel. Everything goes wrong – but maybe it’s right – as heaven and earth settle into an unexpected juxtaposition.
As in South of Centre, Andrea Carter's first novel, greed and corruption follow innocence into an unconventional love story and the phrase 'there are no ordinary lives' feels like an understatement. As spirits and flesh trip over misunderstandings, the thin line between the living and the dead becomes a wild, romantic blur.
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It was just after the earthquake. The 'Mexican Hat Dance' began as a soft vibration and grew increasingly louder from inside the dead man's pocket. It was insisting. Astrid's toes twitched to the beat as she stood, limiting the inclination to dance to inside her shoes, and wondering if the call might be high enough on the list of divine priorities to bring the man back to life. But he remained dead. So she bent down and reached into his vibrating right trouser pocket to retrieve his cell phone.
“Aló?” She answered, her voice betraying her trepidation. Who didn't know that this man had ceased to exist?
A noticeable hesitation. “With Adolfo, please.” the woman's voice was brittle.
“Uh... he can't come to the phone right now,” was all Astrid could think of under the circumstances.
“Well, I’ve called him over and over and he refuses to answer. And just now, with this emergency... well, I was lucky to get through at all...” There was an annoyed pause, “And now you! Who are you?” Astrid could almost feel the spray of saliva through the phone as the woman forced angry words from between what Astrid had no doubt were very cherry red lips. “You mean to tell me that even in this dreadful disaster he has a strange woman answer his phone to tell me he can't take the call?” Incredulous, her voice became shrill. “Well then, you can just tell him for me that his excuse better be a good one!” And she hung up.
Astrid pushed the 'off' button, slid the phone back into the dead man's pocket, straightened up and tried not to judge him. Nevertheless she noticed that he was not particularly handsome, nor was he young, and he was overweight by at least 30 kilos. His suit was not expensive and he wasn't wearing jewelry. She wondered why someone would be quite so jealous of this dead man. Whatever the woman's excuse for her interest in him, the man himself definitely had a good one for not returning in kind.
She didn't know much about him other than that two days ago he had died, ceased to exist, become obsolete, was inoperative, kaput, done for. And now he was her new client, the defunct resident of Niche Number 170, Wall 3, Patio Number 62, General Cemetery of Santiago, Chile.
Astrid didn’t notice Jhonny Pretty drive up in the 1975 Volvo Amazon and she didn’t hear the brakes squeak as he pulled in across from the cemetery gate. He extracted from his pocket the loose cigarette that his friend Mario had sheepishly bestowed as a going-away gift, lit it, leaned back and inhaled. For a moment the smoke obscured his gaunt face, the handsome features faded behind years of hard living, grey eyes once a steel blue that drove the girls wild. His fine nose had a knuckle dent in it and there was evidence of a fist having hammered into his slightly deformed lower lip (possibly more than once) and one of his bottom molars was missing. He tossed his hair, running his fingers through it several times, ignoring its dull, brittle ends. Juan loved the length and thickness of his hair, denying its unhealthy condition. He insisted on the 70s’ style, feathered and long at the back, because it made him look so damned handsome. “Watch,” he predicted, “the rest of the world will come round full circle because this is a classic ‘do’ and I’ll be the first one to say ‘I told you so’.” He was lost in the past, stuck in the groove, like a needle caught in the vinyl track of his most popular hit song whose title was ‘This is the Moment of Forever.
I began writing fiction in earnest after my Chilean-born husband and I moved to Santiago in 1999. You could say I'm a late bloomer. As a child in northern British Columbia I broke into a neighbour’s house just to play with their typewriter. That should have been a sign. But I ignored it, grew up, raised four children and launched a career as a freelance illustrator/graphic designer, which expanded to include writing character profiles for newsletters and introductions to cookbooks. I got more serious about writing after I was hired as editor/production manager of a lifestyle magazine in Spain. My husband and I moved around between Bolivia, Chile and Spain for more than 12 years before returning to Canada for ‘a pause in the game.’
Inspired by life in South America, I've written two novels and begun a collection of short stories.