Such was the force of this blow that, once his disoriented feet were out in the street again, it took Senhor Jos? a while to realise that a very fine, almost diaphanous rain was falling on him, the sort of rain that soaks you vertically and horizontally, and from every other angle as well. It might be a good idea to try looking her up in the phone book, the old girl had remarked slyly as they said goodbye, and each of those words, innocent in themselves, incapable of offending even the most susceptible of creatures, was transformed in an instant into an aggressive insult, a proof of insufferable stupidity, as if, throughout that conversation, so rich in emotions after a certain point, she had been observing him coldly and had come to the conclusion that this awkward official sent by the Central Registry to seek out things both distant and hidden was incapable of seeing what was right in front of his eyes and within reach of his hands. Having no hat or umbrella, Senhor Jos? received the fine spray of water directly on his face, the swirling confusion of drops resembling the disagreeable thoughts coming and going inside his head, but all of them, he noticed, were circling round one central point, still barely discernible, but which, little by little, was becoming clearer. It was true that he hadn’t even thought of doing something as simple and everyday as consulting the telephone book in order to find out both the telephone number and the address of the person whose name they were listed under. If he wanted to discover the unknown woman’s whereabouts, that should have been his first action, in less than a minute he would have found out where she was, then, on the pretext of clearing up some imaginary query in her file at the Central Registry, he could arrange to meet her at her home, saying that he wanted to save her having to pay a bit of tax, for example, and then, immediately afterwards, risking everything with one bold gesture, or days later, when he had gained her confidence, saying to her, Tell me about your life. He hadn’t done that, and although he was fairly ignorant of the arts of psychology and the secrets of the unconscious, he was beginning now, with considerable accuracy, to understand why he hadn’t. Let’s imagine a hunter, he was saying to himself, let’s imagine a hunter who has lovingly gathered together his equipment, the rifle, the cartridge belt, the bag of provisions, the canteen of water, the net bag to collect his booty in, his walking shoes, let’s imagine him setting out with his dogs, determined, confident, prepared, as one should be on these hunting expeditions, for a long day, and then, as he turns the next corner, he comes across a flock of partridges right by his house, ready and willing to be killed, and although they take flight, however many of them are brought down, they still don’t actually fly away, to the delight and surprise of the dogs, who have never in their lives seen manna fall from heaven in such quantities. What interest could such an easy kill have for the hunter, with those partridges offering themselves up, so to speak, to his gun, wondered Senhor Jos?, and he gave the obvious answer, None. That’s what has happened to me, he added, inside my head, and probably inside everyone’s head, there must be a kind of autonomous thought that thinks for itself, that decides things without the participation of any other thought it is the thought we have known for as Ions as we have known ourselves and which we address familiarly as “tu,” the one that allows itself to be guided by us in order to take us where we think we consciously want to go, but that, in the end, might be being led along an entirely different path, in another direction, and not towards the nearest corner, where a flock of partridges is waiting for us all unknowing, although we know that it is the search that gives meaning to any find and that one often has to travel a long way in order to arrive at what is near. The clarity of this thought, whether the former or the latter, the special thought or the habitual one, the truth that, once you’ve arrived, it matters little how you arrived there, was so dazzling that Senhor Jos? stopped, stunned, in the middle of the pavement, wrapped in the misty drizzle and in the light of a street lamp that happened to come on at that very moment. Then, from the depths of a contrite and grateful soul, he regretted the evil, unmerited thoughts, those all too conscious thoughts he had heaped upon the kind old lady in the ground-floor apartment, when in truth he was in her debt, not only for the address of the school and for the photo, but also for the full and perfect explanation of a process that apparently had no explanation. And since she had left hanging in the air that invitation to go back and see her, If you’re ever passing this way again, those were her words, clear enough for her not to bother with the rest of the phrase, he promised himself that he would knock on her door again one of these days, both to tell her how his researches were going and to surprise her with the revelation of his real reason for not consulting the phone book. Obviously this would mean having to confess to her that the letter of authority was false, that the search had not been ordered by the Central Registry, but was his own idea and, inevitably, tell her about everything else too. Everything else was his collection of famous people, his fear of heights, the age-blackened documents, the spiders’ webs, the monotonous shelves of the living, the chaos of the dead, the frowsty smell, the dust, the despair and finally the record card which for some reason had got stuck to the others, So that it and the name it bore would not be forgotten, The name of the little girl I have with me, he realised, and had not the powdery rain continued to fall from the skies, he would have taken the photo out of his pocket to look at it. If he was ever to describe to anyone what the Central Registry was like inside, it would be to that lady in the ground-floor apartment. Its a matter that only time can resolve, thought Senhor Jos?. At that precise moment, time brought him the bus that would take him near to his house, it was full of drenched people, men and women of various ages and shapes, some young, some old, some younger, some older. The Central Registry knew them all, knew their names, where they had been born and who their parents were, it counted up and counted off their days one by one, that woman, for example, with her eyes closed, the one with her head resting on the window, must be what, thirty-five, thirty-six, that was all Senhor Jos? needed for his imagination to take wing, And what if she’s the woman I’m looking for, it wasn’t, in fact, impossible, in this life we meet strangers all the time, and you just have to resign yourself to it, we can’t go around asking everyone, What’s your name, and then produce a record card from our pocket to see if that is the person we want. Two stops later, the woman got off, then she stood on the pavement waiting for the bus to continue its journey, she probably wanted to cross to the other side of the road and, since she wasn’t carrying an umbrella, Senhor Jos? could see her face full on despite the tiny raindrops clinging to the bus windows, there was a moment when, perhaps impatient because the bus was taking a while to draw away, she looked up, and that was when her eyes met his. Both he and she stayed like that until the bus set off again, they stayed like that for as long as they could see each other, Senhor Jos? craning and turning his neck, the woman following his movements from where she was standing, perhaps asking herself, I wonder who that is, he saying to himself, It’s her.
It wasn’t very far from Senhor Jos?’s stop to the Central Registry, a most praiseworthy show of consideration on the part of the transport services for the people who had to go to the Central Registry to deal with various papers, but despite that, Senhor Jos? arrived home soaked from head to foot. He quickly took off his raincoat, changed his trousers, socks and shoes, rubbed his dripping hair with a towel, and, while he was doing all this, continued his interior dialogue, It’s her, It’s not her, It could be, It could, but it wasn’t, But what if it was, You’ll know that when you find the woman on the card, If it was her, I’ll say we’ve already met, that we saw each other on the bus, She won’t remember, If I find her soon, she’s bound to remember, But you don’t want to find her soon, perhaps not even later, if you really wanted to you would look up her name in the telephone book, that’s where you should start, I forgot, The phone book’s in there, I don’t feel like going into the Central Registry just now, You’re afraid of the dark, Not at all, I know that darkness like the back of my hand, You don’t even know the back of your hand, If that’s what you think, then just let me wallow in my own ignorance, after all, the birds don’t know why they sing, but they still sing, You’re very poetic, No, just sad, Hardly surprising considering the life you lead, Imagine the woman on the bus was the woman on the card, imagine I never find her again, that that was the one and only time, that my destiny was there and I let it slip by, You have one way of finding out, What, Do what the old girl in the ground-floor apartment said, Watch your tongue, please, But she is an old girl, She’s just getting on a bit, Oh, enough of your hypocrisy, we’re all getting on a bit, the question is how much, if it’s not much, you’re young if it’s a lot, you’re old, the rest is just idle twaddle, Oh, forget it, All right, Anyway, I’m going to look in the phone book, That’s what I’ve been telling you to do for the last half hour. In pyjamas and slippers and wrapped in a blanket, Senhor Jos? went into the Central Registry. His unusual outfit made him feel rather uneasy, as if he were being disrespectful to the venerable archives, to that eternal yellowish light which, like a moribund sun, hovered above the Registrars desk. The telephone book was there, on one corner of the table, you were not allowed to consult it without permission, even if it was an official call, and now, as he had done before, Senhor Jos? could sit down at the desk, it’s true that he had done so only once before, in a peerless moment that had seemed to him triumphant and glorious, but this time he didn’t dare, perhaps because he was improperly dressed, out of an absurd fear that someone might surprise him like that, but what other living being, apart from him, wandered about there after hours. He thought it might be best to take the phone book with him, he would feel more comfortable at home, without the threatening presence of those towering shelves that seemed about to hurl themselves down from the shadowy ceiling, up there where the spiders weave and gorge. He shuddered as if the dusty, sticky webs really were falling on him and he very nearly made the rash mistake of picking up the phone book without first taking the precaution of measuring exactly the distances that separated it, above and to the side, from the edge of the table, and not just the distances, the precise angles too, fortunately, though, the Registrar’s geometrical and topographical inclinations showed a clear preference for right angles and parallel lines. He returned home in the certainty that, shortly afterwards, when he replaced the phone book, it would be in exactly the right place, to the millimetre, and that the Registrar would not have to give orders to his deputies to find out who had used it how when and why. Up until the very last moment he was still expecting something to happen that would prevent him from taking the book a murmur, a suspicious creaking, a bright light emerging suddenly out of the mortuary depths of the archives, but there was absolute quiet, not even the sound of the woodworms tiny grinding jaws.
Now, Senhor Jos?, with the blanket round his shoulders, is sitting at his own table, in front of him is the telephone book, he opens it at the beginning and lingers over the instructions, the codes, the price tariffs, as if that were what he was looking for. After a few moments, a sudden, unwitting impulse makes him leaf rapidly through the pages, forwards and backwards, until he stops on the page where the name of the unknown woman should be. Either it isn’t there or his eyes won’t see it. No, it’s not there. It should come after that name, and it doesn’t. It should come before that name, and it doesn’t. Just as I said, thought Senhor Jos?, and it wasn’t true that he had said any such thing, that’s just a way of proving oneself right in the eyes of the world, of giving expression, in this case, to joy, any police investigator would have shown his irritation by thumping the table, not Senhor Jos?, Senhor Jos? wears the ironic smile of someone who, having been sent to look for something he knew did not exist, returns from the search with these words on his lips, Just as I said, either she hasn’t got a phone or she doesn’t want her name to appear in the book He was so pleased that, immediately after that, without bothering to weigh the pros and cons, he looked for the name of the unknown woman’s father, and that was there. Not a fibre of his being trembled. On the contrary, determined now to burn all his bridges, drawn on by an impulse known only to the true researcher, he looked for the name of the man. whom the unknown woman had divorced, and he was there too If he had a map of the city he would be able to mark the first five established staging posts, two in the street where the girl in the photo had been born another at the school and now these the beginning of a design made up like that of all lives of broken lines, crossings, intersections, but never bifurcations, because the spirit never goes anywhere without its legs, and the body would be incapable of moving without the wings of the spirit. He noted down the addresses, then what he would need to buy, a large map of the city, a thick piece of cardboard of the same size on which to fix it, a box of pins with coloured heads, red so they could be seen from a distance, for lives are like paintings, you always need to look at them from four paces away, even if one day you manage to touch their skin, catch their smell, taste them. Senhor Jos? was quite calm, he wasn’t troubled by the fact that he now knew where the unknown woman’s parents and former husband lived, the husband, curiously enough, lived quite close to the Central Registry, obviously, sooner or later, Senhor Jos? would go and knock at their doors, but only when he felt the moment had arrived, only when the moment told him, Now. He closed the phone book, returned it to the boss’s desk, to the exact place where he had taken it from, and he went back home. According to the clock, it was suppertime, but the emotions of the day must have distracted his stomach, which gave no signs of impatience. He sat down again, pulled the blanket around him, tugging at the corners so as to cover his legs, and took up the notebook he had bought at the stationer’s. It was time to begin making notes on how the search was going, the people he had met, the conversations he had had, his thoughts, his plans and tactics for an investigation that promised to be complex, The steps taken by someone in search of someone else, he thought, and the truth is, that although the process was only in its early stages, he already had a lot to say, If this were a novel, he murmured as he opened the notebook, the conversation with the lady in the ground-floor apartment would be a chapter in itself. He picked up a pen to begin but stopped halfway his eyes caught the paper on which he had written down the addresses, there was something he hadn’t considered before the perfectly plausible hypothesis that the unknown woman, after she got divorced, had gone to live with her parents, the equally possible hypothesis that her husband had left the apartment, leaving the telephone in his name. If that was so, and bearing in mind that the street in question was near the Central Registry, the woman on the bus might well have been the same one. The inner dialogue seemed to want to start up again, It was, It wasn’t, It was, It wasn’t, but this time, Senhor Jos? paid no heed to it and, bending over the notebook, he began to write the first words, Thus, I went into the building, went up the stairs to the second floor and listened at the door of the apartment where the unknown woman was born, then I heard a little baby crying, it could be her child I thought, and, at the same time, I heard a woman crooning to it softly, It must be her, later, I found out that it wasn’t.