[The JRB Exclusive] ‘This is not a game of football, it is a slaughter of the innocents!’—Read an excerpt from JM Coetzee’s new novel The Death of Jesus

The JRB presents, exclusively in South Africa, an excerpt from The Death of Jesus, the newly published final novel of JM Coetzees Jesus trilogy.

The Death of Jesus was first published in Spanish, as La muerte de Jesús in September 2019, and was then released in Australia, where Coetzee now lives, in October 2019. It was released in the United Kingdom and South Africa in January and will be out in the United States in March.


The Death of Jesus
JM Coetzee
Harvill Secker, 2020

About the book

‘A masterful new novel completes an incomparable trilogy’ from JM Coetzee, Nobel laureate and two-time winner of the Booker Prize.

In The Childhood of Jesus, Simòn found a boy, David, and they began life in a new land, together with a woman named Inès. In The Schooldays of Jesus, the small family searched for a home in which David could thrive.

In The Death of Jesus, David, now a tall ten-year-old, is spotted by Julio Fabricante, the director of a local orphanage, playing football with his friends. He shows unusual talent. When David announces that he wants to go and live with Julio and the children in his care, Simòn and Inès are stunned. David is leaving them, and they can only love him and bear witness.

Read an excerpt:

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Chapter 1

It is a crisp autumn afternoon. On the grassy expanse behind the apartment block he stands watching a game of football. Usually he is the sole spectator of these games played between children from the block. But today two strangers have stopped to watch too: a man in a dark suit with, by his side, a girl in school uniform.

The ball loops out to the left wing, where David is playing. Trapping the ball, David easily outsprints the defender who comes out to engage him and lofts the ball into the centre. It escapes everyone, escapes the goalkeeper, crosses the goal line.

In these weekday games there are no proper teams. The boys divide up as they see fit, drop in, drop out. Sometimes there are thirty on the field, sometimes only half a dozen. When David first joined in, three years ago, he was the youngest and smallest. Now he is among the bigger boys, but nimble despite his height, quick on his feet, a deceptive runner.

There is a lull in the game. The two strangers approach; the dog slumbering at his feet rouses himself and raises his head.

‘Good day,’ says the man. ‘What teams are these?’

‘It is just a pick-up game between children from the neighbourhood.’

‘They are not bad,’ says the stranger. ‘Are you a parent?’

Is he a parent? Is it worth trying to explain what exactly he is? ‘That is my son over there,’ he says. ‘David. The tall boy with the dark hair.’

The stranger inspects David, the tall boy with the dark hair, who is strolling about abstractedly, not paying much attention to the game.

‘Have they thought of organizing themselves into a team?’ says the stranger. ‘Let me introduce myself. My name is Julio Fabricante. This is Maria Prudencia. We are from Las Manos. Do you know Las Manos? No? It is the orphanage on the far side of the river.’

‘Simón,’ says he, Simón. He shakes hands with Julio Fabricante from the orphanage, gives Maria Prudencia a nod. Maria is, he would guess, fourteen years old, solidly built, with heavy eyebrows and a well developed bust.

‘I ask because we would be happy to host them. We have a proper field with proper markings and proper goalposts.’

‘I think they are content just kicking a ball around.’

‘You do not improve without competition,’ says Julio.

‘Agreed. On the other hand, forming a team would mean selecting eleven and excluding the rest, which would contradict the ethos they have built up. That is how I see it. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe they would indeed like to compete and improve. Ask them.’

David has the ball at his feet. He feints left and goes right, making the move so fluidly that the defender is stranded. He passes the ball to a teammate and watches as the teammate lobs it tamely into the goalkeeper’s arms.

‘He is very good, your son,’ says Julio. ‘A natural.’

‘He has an advantage over his friends. He takes dancing lessons, so he has good balance. If the other boys took dancing lessons they would be just as good.’

‘You hear that, Maria?’ says Julio. ‘Maybe you should follow David’s lead and take dancing lessons.’

Maria stares fixedly ahead.

‘Maria Prudencia plays football,’ says Julio. ‘She is one of the stalwarts of our team.’

The sun is going down. Soon the boy who owns the ball will reclaim it (‘I’ve got to go’) and the players will drift off home.

‘I know you are not their coach,’ says Julio. ‘I can also see you are not in favour of organized sport. Nevertheless, for the boys’ sake, give it some thought. Here is my card. They might enjoy it, playing as a team against another team. Very good to meet you.’

Dr Julio Fabricante, Educador, says the card. Orfanato de Las Manos, Estrella 4.

‘Come, Bolívar,’ he says. ‘Time to go home.’

The dog heaves himself to his feet, letting loose a malodorous fart.

Over supper David asks: ‘Who was the man you were talking to?’

‘His name is Dr Julio Fabricante. Here is his card. He is from an orphanage. He proposes that you boys choose a team to play against a team from the orphanage.’

Inés examines the card. ‘Educador,’ she says. ‘What is that?’

‘It is a fancy word for teacher.’

When he arrives at the grassy field the following afternoon, Dr Fabricante is already there, addressing the boys clustered around him. ‘You can also choose a name for your team,’ he is saying. ‘And you can choose the colour of your team shirts.’

‘Los Gatos,’ says one boy.

‘Las Panteras,’ says another.

Las Panteras finds favour among the boys, who seem excited by Dr Julio’s proposal.

‘We at the orphanage call ourselves Los Halcones, after the hawk, the bird with the keenest sight of all.’

David speaks: ‘Why don’t you call yourselves Los Huérfanos?’

There is an awkward silence. ‘Because, young man,’ says Dr Fabricante, ‘we do not seek any favours. We do not ask to be allowed to win just because of who we are.’

‘Are you an orphan?’ asks David.

‘No, I do not happen to be an orphan myself, but I am in charge of the orphanage and live there. I have great respect and love for orphans, of whom there are many more in the world than you may think.’

The boys fall silent. He, Simón, keeps his silence too.

‘I am an orphan,’ says David. ‘Can I play for your team?’

The boys titter. They are used to David’s provocations. ‘Stop it, David!’ hisses one of them.

It is time for him to intervene. ‘I am not sure, David, that you appreciate what it is to be an orphan, a real orphan. An orphan has no family, no home. That is where Dr Julio comes in. He offers orphans a home. You already have a home.’ He turns to Dr Julio. ‘I apologize for involving you in a family dispute.’

‘No need to apologize. The question young David raises is an important one. What does it mean to be an orphan? Does it simply mean that you are without visible parents? No. To be an orphan, at the deepest level, is to be alone in the world. So in a sense we are all orphans, for we are all, at the deepest level, alone in the world. As I say to the young people in my charge, there is nothing to be ashamed of in living in an orphanage, for an orphanage is a microcosm of society.’

‘You didn’t answer me,’ says David. ‘Can I play for your team?’

‘It would be better if you played for your own team,’ says Dr Fabricante. ‘If everyone played for Los Halcones there would be no one for us to play against. There would be no competition.’

‘I am not asking for everyone. I am just asking for me.’

Dr Fabricante turns to him, Simón. ‘What do you think, señor? Do you approve of Las Panteras as a name for your football team?’

‘I have no opinion,’ he replies. ‘I would not wish to impose my tastes on these young folk.’ He stops there. He would like to add: These young folk who were happy playing football in their own way until you arrived on the scene.

Chapter 2

This is the fourth year of their residence in the apartment block. Though Inés’s apartment on the second floor is large enough for all three of them, he has by mutual agreement taken an apartment of his own on the ground floor, smaller and more simply furnished. He has been able to afford it ever since his earnings were augmented with a disability grant for a back injury that has never properly healed, an injury dating from his time as a stevedore in Novilla.

He has an income of his own and an apartment of his own but he has no social circle, not because he is an unsociable being or because Estrella is an unfriendly town but because he resolved long ago to devote himself without reserve to the boy’s upbringing. As for Inés, she spends her days and sometimes her evenings too attending to the fashion boutique she half-owns. Her friends are drawn from Modas Modernas and the wider world of fashion. He is deliberately incurious about these friendships. Whether among her friends she has lovers he does not know and does not care to know, so long as she remains a good mother.

Under their wing David has flourished. He is strong and healthy. Years ago, when they were living in Novilla, they had a battle with the public school system. David’s teachers found him obstinado, intractable. Since then they have kept him out of the public schools.

He, Simón, is confident that a child with such clear inborn intelligence can do without formal schooling. He is an exceptional child, he tells Inés. Who can predict in what direction his gifts will lie? Inés, in her more generous moments, is prepared to agree.

At the Academy of Music in Estrella David attends classes in singing and dancing. The singing classes are supervised by the director of the Academy, Juan Sebastián Arroyo. When it comes to dancing, there is no one at the Academy who has anything to teach him. On the days when he makes an appearance in class, he dances as he chooses; the rest of the students follow or, if they cannot follow, watch.

He, Simón, is a dancer too, though a late convert and without any gifts. He does his dancing in private, in the evenings, alone. After donning his pyjamas, he plays the gramophone at a subdued level and dances for himself, with his eyes shut, long enough for his mind to go blank. Then he switches off the music and goes to bed and sleeps the sleep of the just.

The music is, most evenings, a suite of dances for flute and violin composed by Arroyo to mark the death of his second wife, Ana Magdalena. The dances have no title; the record, pressed in the back room of a shop in the city, has no label. The music itself is slow and stately and sad.

David does not deign to attend normal classes, and in particular to do arithmetical exercises like a normal ten-year-old, because of a prejudice against arithmetic encouraged in him by the deceased señora Arroyo, who impressed it on students who passed through her hands that integral numbers are divinities, heavenly entities who existed before the physical world came into being and will continue to exist after the world has come to an end, and therefore deserve reverence. To mix the numbers one with another (adición, sustracción), or chop them into pieces (fracciones), or apply them to measuring quantities of bricks or flour (la medida), constitutes an affront to their divinity.

For his tenth birthday he and Inés gave David a watch, which David refuses to wear because (he says) it fixes the numbers in a circular order. Nine o’clock may be before ten o’clock, he says, but nine is neither before nor after ten.

To señora Arroyo’s devotion to the numbers, given form in the dances she taught her students, David has added an idiosyncratic twist of his own: identification of particular numbers with particular stars in the sky.

He, Simón, does not understand the philosophy of number (which he privately considers to be not a philosophy but a cult) proselytized at the Academy: openly by the late señora, more discreetly by the widower Arroyo and his musician friends. He does not understand it but he tolerates it, not only out of consideration for David but also because, when he is in the right mood, during his solitary dancing of an evening, there sometimes comes to him a vision, momentary, transient, of what señora Arroyo used to speak of: silvery spheres too many to count rotating about each other with an unearthly hum, in unending space.

He dances, he has visions, yet he does not think of himself as a convert to the cult of number. For his visions he has a reasoned explanation, one that satisfies him most of the time: the lulling rhythm of the dance, the hypnotic chant of the flute, induce a state of trance in which fragments are sucked up from the bed of memory and whirled before the inner eye.




David cannot or will not do sums. More worryingly, he will not read. That is to say, having taught himself to read out of Don Quixote, he shows no interest in reading any other book. He knows Don Quixote by heart, in an abbreviated version for children; he treats it not as a made-up story but as a veritable history. Somewhere in the world, or if not in this world then in the next one, Don Quixote is abroad, mounted on his steed Rocinante, with Sancho trotting by his side on an ass.

They have had arguments about Don Quixote, he and the boy. If you would only open yourself to other books, he says, you will find that the world has a multitude of heroes besides the Don, and heroines too, conjured out of nothing by the fertile minds of authors. Indeed, being a gifted child, you could make up heroes of your own and send them out into the world to have adventures.

David barely listens to him. ‘I don’t want to read other books,’ he says dismissively. ‘I can already read.’

‘You have a false understanding of what it means to read. Reading is not just turning printed signs into sounds. Reading is something deeper. True reading means hearing what the book has to say and pondering it—perhaps even having a conversation in your mind with the author. It means learning about the world—the world as it really is, not as you wish it to be.’

‘Why?’ says David.

‘Why? Because you are young and ignorant. You will rid yourself of your ignorance only by opening yourself to the world. And the best way of opening yourself to the world is to read what other people have to say, people less ignorant than you.’

‘I know about the world.’

‘No, you do not. You know nothing whatsoever of the world outside your own limited field of experience. Dancing and kicking a football are fine activities in themselves but they do not teach you about the world.’

‘I read Don Quixote.’

Don Quixote, I repeat, is not the world. Far from it. Don Quixote is a made-up story of a deluded old man. It is an amusing book, it sucks you into its fantasy, but fantasy is not real. Indeed, the message of the book is precisely to warn readers like yourself against being sucked into an unreal world, a world of fantasy, as Don Quixote is sucked. Do you not recall how the book ends, with Don Quixote coming to his senses and telling his niece to burn his books so that no one in future will be tempted to follow his crazy path?’

‘But she doesn’t burn his books.’

‘She does! It may not say so in the book, but she does! She is only too thankful to get rid of them.’

‘But she doesn’t burn Don Quixote.’

‘She can’t burn Don Quixote because she is inside Don Quixote. You can’t burn a book if you are inside it, if you are a character in it.’

‘You can. But she doesn’t. Because if she did I would not have Don Quixote. It would be burnt up.’

He comes away from these disputations with the boy baffled yet obscurely proud: baffled because he cannot overcome a ten-year-old in an argument; proud because the ten-year-old can so deftly tie him in knots. The child may be lazy, the child may be arrogant, he tells himself, but at least the child is not stupid.

Chapter 3

Now and then, after supper, the boy will command the two of them to sit down on the sofa (‘Come on, Inés! Come on, Simón!’) and enact for them what he calls un espectáculo, a show. These are the occasions when they feel closest as a family and when the boy’s affection for them expresses itself most clearly.

The songs David sings in his espectáculos come from the class in singing he takes with señor Arroyo. Many of them are Arroyo’s own compositions, addressed to a who may well be Arroyo’s deceased wife. Inés does not think them appropriate for children, and he tends to share her reservation. Nonetheless, he reflects, it must buoy Arroyo’s spirit to hear his creations given body in such a pure young voice as David’s.

‘Inés, Simón, do you want to hear a mystery song?’ says the boy on the evening after Fabricante’s visit. And with unusual urgency and force he raises his voice and sings:

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,
nie hätt’ ich gesendet das Kind hinaus—
Ja, in diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,
durft’st Du nicht senden das Kind hinaus!

‘Is that all?’ says Inés. ‘It’s very short for a song.’

‘I sang it for Juan Sebastián today. I was going to sing another song but when I opened my mouth that one came out. Do you know what it means?’

He repeats the song slowly, articulating the strange words with care.

‘I have no idea what it means. What does señor Arroyo say?’

‘He doesn’t know either. But he said I must not be afraid. He said, if I do not know what it means in this life, I will find out in the next life.’

‘Did he consider,’ says he, Simón, ‘that the song may come not from the next life but from your previous life, the life you had before you stepped on board the big boat and crossed the ocean?’

The boy is silent. That is where the conversation ends, and with it the evening’s espectáculo. But the next day, when he and David are alone, the boy returns to the subject. ‘Who was I, Simón, before I crossed the ocean? Who was I before I began to speak Spanish?’

‘I would say, you were the same person you are today, except that you looked different and had another name and spoke another language, all of which was washed away when you crossed the ocean, along with your memories. Nevertheless, to answer the question Who was I?, I would say that, in your heart, at your core, you were yourself, your one and only self. Otherwise it would make no sense to say that you forgot the language you spoke and so forth. Because who was there to do the forgetting save yourself, the self you guard in your heart? That is how I see it.’

‘But I did not forget everything, did I? In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus—I remember it, only I don’t remember what it means.’

‘Indeed. Or maybe, as señor Arroyo suggests, the words come to you not from your past life but from your next life. In that case it would be inaccurate to say the words come from memoria, memory, since we can only remember things that are past. Instead I would call your words profecía, foretelling. It would be as if you remember the future.’

‘Which do you think it is, Simón, past or future? I think it is future. I think it is from my next life. Can you remember the future?’

‘No, alas, I remember nothing at all, past or future. Compared with you, young David, I am a very dull fellow, not exceptional at all, in fact the very opposite of exceptional. I live in the present like an ox. It is a great gift to be able to remember, whether the past or the future, as I am sure señor Arroyo would agree. You should keep a notebook with you so that you can write things down when you remember them, even if they make no sense.’

‘Or else I can tell you things that I remember and you can write them down.’

‘Good idea. I could be your secretario, the man who records your secrets. We could make a project of it, you and I. Instead of waiting for things to come into your mind—the mystery song, for instance—we could set aside a few minutes each day, when you wake up in the morning or last thing before you go to sleep, as a time for you to concentrate and try to remember things from the past or the future. Shall we do that?’

The boy is silent.

Chapter 4

On the Friday of that week, without preamble, David makes his announcement: ‘Inés, tomorrow I am going to play proper football. You and Simón must come and watch.’

‘Tomorrow? I can’t come tomorrow, my dear. Saturday is a busy day at the shop.’

‘I am going to play for a proper team. I am going to be number 9. I have to wear a white shirt. You must make a number 9 and sew it on the back.’

One by one the details of the new era, the era of proper football, emerge. At nine o’clock in the morning a van will arrive to pick up the boys from the apartments. The boys must be wearing white shirts with black numbers on their backs, from one to eleven. At ten o’clock sharp, under the name Las Panteras, they will run onto the field to engage with Los Hálcones, the team from the orphanage.

‘Who selected your team?’ he asks.

‘I did.’

‘Are you the captain then, the chief?’

‘Yes.’

‘And who made you captain?’

‘All the boys. They want me to be captain. I gave them their numbers.’

The van from the orphanage arrives punctually the next morning, driven by a taciturn man in blue overalls. Not all the boys are ready—they have to send an envoy to rouse Carlitos, who has overslept—and not all are wearing white shirts with black numbers as instructed—indeed, not all have proper football boots. However, thanks to Inés’s skill as a seamstress, David has an elegant number 9 on his shirt and looks every inch the captain.

He and Inés see them off, then follow by car: the prospect of her son leading a team of footballers onto the field evidently trumps the business of the shop.

The orphanage is on the far side of the river, in a part of the city he has never had reason to explore. They follow the van across a bridge, through an industrial quarter, then down a narrow, rutted road between a warehouse and a timber yard, to emerge at a surprisingly pleasant site on the riverside: a complex of low sandstone buildings shaded by trees, with a sports field where children of all ages are milling about, clad in the neat dark-blue uniform of the orphanage.

There is a sharp breeze blowing. Inés has the protection of a jacket with a high collar; he, with less foresight, has only a sweater.

‘That is Dr Fabricante,’ he points out, ‘the man in the black shirt and shorts. It seems he will be the referee.’

Dr Fabricante blows on his whistle, one imperious blast after another, and waves his arms. The throng of children scamper off the field, the two teams line up behind him, the orphans spick and span in dark-blue shirts, white shorts, black boots, the boys from the apartments in their miscellany of outfits and footwear.

He is struck at once by the disparity in size between the teams. The children in blue are, simply, much bigger. There is even a girl among them, whom he recognizes from her sturdy thighs and swelling bosom as Maria Prudencia. There are boys too who look distinctly post-pubertal. By comparison the visitors seem puny.

From the kick-off the young panteras back away, reluctant to tangle with their heavier opponents. In no time the team in blue has barged its way through and scored its first goal, soon followed by another.

He turns to Inés, annoyed. ‘This is not a game of football, it is a slaughter of the innocents!’

The ball falls at the feet of one of the boys from David’s team. Wildly he kicks it ahead. Two of his fellows chase after it, but it is trapped by Maria Prudencia, who stands over the ball, daring them to take it from her. They freeze. Contemptuously she side-foots it to a teammate.

The tactics followed by the orphans are simple but effective: they move the ball methodically upfield, shouldering opponents out of the way, until they can push it past the hapless goalkeeper. By the time Dr Fabricante blows his whistle for half-time the score is 10-0. Shivering in the sharp wind, the children from the apartments huddle together and wait for the slaughter to recommence.

Dr Fabricante restarts the game. The ball rebounds off someone and spins out to David. With the ball at his feet he drifts like a ghost past a first opponent, a second, a third, and taps it into the goal.

A minute later the ball is again fed to him. With ease he rounds the defenders; but then, instead of shooting for goal, he passes the ball to a teammate and watches him loft it over the crossbar.

The game comes to an end. Dispiritedly the boys from the apartments trudge off the field, while the victors are encircled by a joyous crowd.

Dr Fabricante strides over to where they are standing. ‘I trust you enjoyed the game. It was a little one-sided—I apologize for that. But it is important for our children to prove themselves against the outside world. Important for their self-esteem.’

‘Our boys are hardly the outside world,’ replies he, Simón. ‘They are just kids who like to kick a football around. If you really want to test your team you should play against stronger opposition. Don’t you agree, Inés?’

Inés nods.

He is angry enough not to care if Dr Fabricante takes offence. But no, Fabricante brushes off the rebuke. ‘Winning or losing is not everything,’ he says. ‘What matters is that children participate, do their best, perform to their maximum. However, in certain cases winning does become an important factor. Ours is such a case. Why? Because our children start at a disadvantage. They need t

o prove to themselves that they can compete with outsiders—compete and prevail. Surely you see that.’

He does not see it at all; but he has no wish to get into an argument. He has not taken to Dr Fabricante, educador; he hopes he will never see him again. ‘I am freezing,’ he says, ‘and I am sure the children are freezing too. Where has the driver got to?’

‘He will be here in a minute,’ says Dr Fabricante. He pauses, addresses Inés: ‘Señora, may I have a word with you in private?’

He, Simón, strolls off. The children from the orphanage have taken possession of the field and are busy at their various games, ignoring the vanquished visitors, who wait miserably for the van to arrive and take them home.

The van comes, Las Panteras scramble aboard. They are about to drive off when Inés raps peremptorily on the window: ‘David, you are coming with us.’

Reluctantly David extricates himself from the van. ‘Can’t I go with the others?’ he says.

‘No,’ says Inés grimly.

On the way back, in the car, the cause of her bad mood reveals itself. ‘Is it true,’ she says, ‘that you told Dr Fabricante you want to leave home and live in his orphanage?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why did you say that?’

‘Because I am an orphan. Because you and Simón are not my real parents.’

‘Is that what you told him?’

‘Yes.’

He, Simón, intervenes. ‘Don’t get sucked in, Inés. No one is going to take David’s stories seriously, least of all a man who runs an orphanage.’

‘I want to play for their team,’ says the boy.

‘You are going to leave home for the sake of football? To play football for the orphanage? Because you are ashamed of your own team, your friends? Is that what you are telling us?’

‘Dr Julio says I can play in his team. But I have to be an orphan first. It is the rule.’

‘And you said, Very well, I will repudiate my parents and claim to be an orphan, all for the sake of football?’

‘No, I didn’t say that. I said, Why is it the rule? And he said, Because.

‘Is that all he said: Because?’

‘He said, if there was no rule everyone would want to play for their team because they are so good.’

‘They are not good, they are just big and strong. What else did Dr Fabricante say?’

‘I said I am an exception. And he said, if everyone is an exception then rules don’t work. He said, life is like a football game, you have to follow the rules. He is like you. He doesn’t understand anything.’

‘Well, if Dr Fabricante does not understand anything, and if his team is just a bunch of bullies, why do you want to go and live with him in his orphanage? Is it just so that you can play for a winning football team?’

‘What is so bad about winning?’

‘There is nothing bad about winning. Nor is there anything bad about losing. In fact, as a rule, I would say it is better to be among the losers rather than among people who want to win at all costs.’

‘I want to be a winner. I want to win at all costs.’

‘You are a child. Your experience is limited. You haven’t had a chance to see what happens to people who try to win at all costs. They turn into bullies and tyrants, most of them.’

‘It’s not fair! When I say something you don’t like, you say I am a child so what I say doesn’t count. It only counts if I agree with you. Why must I always agree with you? I don’t want to talk like you and I don’t want to be like you! I want to be who I want to be!’

What lies behind this outburst? What has Fabricante been saying to the boy? He tries to catch Inés’s eye, but her gaze is fixed on the road.

‘We are still waiting to hear,’ he says. ‘Aside from football, why do you want to go to the orphanage?’

‘You never listen to me,’ says the boy. ‘You don’t listen so you don’t understand. There is no why.’

‘So Dr Fabricante does not understand and I do not understand and there is no why. Who is there, besides yourself, who understands? Does Inés understand? Do you understand, Inés?’

Inés does not reply. She is not going to come to his aid.

‘In my opinion, young man, you are the one who does not understand,’ he presses on. ‘You have led a very easy life thus far. Your mother and I have indulged you as no normal child is indulged, because we recognize that you are exceptional. But I begin to wonder whether you appreciate what it means to be exceptional. Contrary to what you suppose, it does not mean that you are free do as you like. It does not mean you can ignore the rules. You like to play football, but if you ignore the rules of football the referee will send you off the field, and rightly so. No one is above the law. There is no such thing as being an exception to every rule. A universal exception is a contradiction in terms. It makes no sense.’

‘I told Dr Julio about you and Inés. He knows you are not my real parents.’

‘What you tell Dr Julio is of no importance. Dr Julio cannot take you away from us. He does not have the power.’

‘He says if people are doing bad things to me then he can give me refuge. Bad things are an exception. If people do bad things to you, you can take refuge in his orphanage, no matter who you are.’

‘What do you mean?’ says Inés, speaking for the first time. ‘Who has been doing bad things to you?’

‘Dr Julio says his orphanage is an island of refuge. Anyone who is a victim can come there and he will protect him.’

‘Who has been doing bad things to you?’ demands Inés again.

The boy is silent.

Inés slows the car, stops at the roadside.

‘Answer me, David,’ she says. ‘Did you tell Dr Julio we have been doing bad things to you?’

‘I don’t have to answer. If you are a child you don’t have to answer.’

He, Simón, speaks. ‘I am confused. Did you or did you not tell Dr Julio that Inés and I are doing bad things to you?’

‘I don’t have to tell.’

‘I don’t understand. You do not have to tell me or you do not have to tell Dr Julio?’

‘I don’t have to tell anyone. I can come to his orphanage and he will give me refuge. I don’t have to say why. That is his philosophy. There is no why.’

‘His philosophy! Do you know what the words mean, cosas malas, bad things, what implication they carry, or do you just pick them up like stones and fling them around to hurt people?’

‘I don’t have to tell. You know.’

Inés breaks in again. ‘What is it that Simón knows, David? Has Simón been doing something to you?’

It is as though he has been struck a blow. Out of nothing a rift has opened between Inés and himself.

‘Turn the car around, Inés,’ he says. ‘We have to confront that man. We cannot allow him to pour poison into the child’s ears.’

Inés speaks. ‘Answer me, David. This is a serious matter. Has Simón been doing things to you?’

‘No.’

‘No? He has not been doing things to you? Then why are you making these accusations?’

‘I am not explaining. A child does not have to explain. You want me to follow rules. That is the rule.’

‘If Simón gets out of the car, will you tell me?’

The boy does not reply. He, Simón, gets out of the car. They have reached the bridge that links the south-east quarter of the city to the south-west. He leans over the parapet above the river. A solitary heron, perched on a rock below, ignores him. What a morning! First the travesty of a football game, now this reckless, destructive accusation from the child. I don’t have to tell you what you have done. You know. What has he done? He has never laid an impure finger on the boy, never entertained an impure thought.

He knocks at the car. Inés turns the window down. ‘Can we go back to the orphanage?’ he says. ‘I need to speak to that odious man.’

‘We are having a little talk, David and I,’ says Inés. ‘I will let you kno

w when we are finished.’

The heron has flown. He clambers down the embankment, kneels, drinks.

Then, from the bridge above, David is waving and calling: ‘Simón! What are you doing?’

‘Getting a drink of water.’ He climbs up. ‘David,’ he says, ‘surely you know this is not true. How can you believe I would ever harm you?’

‘Things don’t have to be true to be true. All you ever say is: Is it true? Is it true? That is why you don’t like Don Quixote. You think he isn’t true.’

‘I do like Don Quixote. I like him even if he is not true. I just don’t like him in the same way as you do. But what has Don Quixote to do with all of this—this mess?’

The boy does not answer, but gives him an amused, insolent look.

He gets back into the car, speaks to Inés as calmly as he can. ‘Before you do anything rash, reflect on what you have heard. David says that because he is a child he does not have to follow the same standards of truthfulness as other people. So he is free to make up stories—about me, about anyone in the world. Think about that. Think about it and beware. Tomorrow he will be making up stories about you.’

Inés stares straight ahead. ‘What do you want me to do?’ she says. ‘I have wasted a whole morning watching football. I have things to attend to at the shop. David needs to have a warm bath and put on clean clothes. If you want me to drive you back to the orphanage to have it out with Dr Fabricante, say so. But in that case you will have to find your own way home. I am not waiting. So tell me what you want.’

He reflects. ‘Let us go home,’ he says. ‘On Monday I will pay Dr Fabricante a visit.’

~~~

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