The Silent House


“The first case of the day is for you two.”

It’s wasn’t just the first case of that day, it was my first case ever, since that same week I was moved from reception to the criminal investigation unit; not because I had any special talent but because it was the first week of August and the apathy that permeated every corner of the office during the year was hidden by the idleness of summer vacation. Juan also hoped that nothing serious would happen and that he could easily push to September any case-related tasks.

That day the air conditioning wasn’t working, and the stillness seemed to be thicker than in the early hours of the morning. Last year during the first week of August, a suffocating heat had drowned the city, and the ocean’s movement became languid, much like our own sluggish movements and our lethargic thoughts.

“You’ll find the warrants to search the house and arrest the owner in the computer.”

At our superior’s words, Juan furrowed his brow.

“Don’t eat any breakfast…”

I stared at my coffee in its plastic cup.

“We’d better move.”

Juan’s change in mood was like a summer storm.

“Blessed be Diogenes,” he said as he got in the car.

A long time ago I learned our colleagues rarely responded to Juan because he was quick to anger, like an explosive that didn’t need to be lit. It was frightening to be at the side of the man who spent his day grumbling to himself. He was about to retire, and so the idea of crossing town and going into a putrid apartment in the middle of summer struck him as a sick joke or the last laugh played by the other investigators.

He slid behind the wheel and began to drive. He hadn’t made any other movements, but the sigh of the man whose uniform was about to burst at the seams revealed the weariness in his heart.

When we arrived at the apartment building, he double-parked.

“Let’s get this over with … And leave the clean up to the city! We’ll bust the door down, arrest whoever’s there and be done with it!”

The door to the apartment building was open. A woman wearing an apron and hunched over from the weight of life was mopping the floor. The shine of the cracked tiles reminded us of the light that reflected off the ocean’s surface.

Juan slowly and carefully climbed the stairs, holding onto the wooden banister. I followed behind, stopping first to double check the address: 35 Hondarribia Street, Apt. 1A. It was the right one, but once inside the curved staircase we couldn’t detect a stench or the nauseating smell from years’ worth of accumulated trash and objects.

“This is it.” He pushed the doorbell with a stubby finger.

Just as we were starting to think that nobody was on the other side of the shiny black door, we heard footsteps. The steps were light, slow; more hesitant than fearful. They were the tentative steps of somebody who was used to living alone.

“Police,” was the single word that Juan uttered.

We looked at each other and waited. The cautious footsteps on the other side of the door had quieted, trying to guess the intention of the two men outside the door. Suddenly, the door opened.

Standing before us was a slight woman. Her large glasses covered her pale face, and when she saw our uniforms, she sat on a chair that was next to the door, as if her weakened body couldn’t keep itself upright. Her hands were in her lap.

“Come look at this…”

Juan moved through all the rooms in the white apartment, whose walls were covered with countless bookcases. In every room, from floor to ceiling, there were endless piles of thousands of stolen letters in white envelopes of all shapes and size, all carefully arranged. The mail in the three bedrooms was ordinary; the letters in the living room were all official. All those white envelopes, all so neatly stacked, had converted the apartment walls into correspondence. From the window, Juan gazed at the post office across the street.

The woman accompanied us to the police station without fuss. During the interrogation, she admitted to the theft, but would not say another word. Juan sat observing the despondent woman.

“What’ll happen to her?” My partner’s question was rhetorical. “Fined, fired and back to a bare and silent house,” I thought.

I wrote up the report myself on that stifling day. Throughout the morning, I noticed that my partner was odd, quiet and lost in thought. In those days, jokes about his upcoming retirement would disrupt the silence of the office, and because of that I didn’t say anything to my sad partner when I went to leave my report on his desk and saw an envelope addressed to “Laura Altube, 35 Hondarribia Street, Apt. 1A, San Sebastián”. A few days later, the woman would place, with a trembling hand, that first letter from an unknown sender, my gruff and solitary partner, on one of the bare bookcases.

This story appeared in the magazine Administrazioa Euskaraz (published by the Basque Institute of Public Administration), issue 102, 2018.