The Red Couch by Neil Coughlan

I first saw the red couch in 1970. At the time, I ran a small furniture restoration workshop in the Retiro area of Buenos Aires. It was an 18th century two-seater, French, tightly upholstered, but with frayed cloth in several places where it dived below the hard backing. Valeria Flores had her driver bring the piece in for repair and bore the troubled look of a woman who was saying her last goodbyes to a beloved pet.

"Adriano, tell me the worst," she said, silhouetted black against the dazzling November sun shining into the open workshop front.

"I can lift and strengthen all of this, Valeria. I'll get this horrid mark cleaned up too. Give me a month and I'll have it looking like new."

She took my hand with all the strength a 94-year old could muster and told me, eyes watering.

"Adriano, this beauty has been with us since my son was alive. He would sit here and compose."

I understood. Her son, Jorge Flores, had been a brilliant Tango guitarist and violinist in Buenos Aires' heyday in the 1920s but had died very young. His funeral procession to Recoleta Cemetery, under an unseasonable downpour, in February, 1924 had attracted fifty thousand bedraggled mourners. Jorge Flores was truly a legend of the old Buenos Aires.

I set to work on the red couch, this piece of living history, the same evening. I was curious to discover the source of the brown stain, which looked for all the world as if someone sitting on the couch had been shot. In two days, I'd removed the backing of the couch completely and there I found a poorly bound cloth sack full of letters. The gumming from many of these envelopes had lifted horribly, staining one whole side of the sack and subsequently, over the many years in what I guessed was a sunny spot in Señora Flores' house, had spoiled the couch backing.

I lifted the first letter out and read the front: "Miss Jennifer Flores, Alderney Lodge, Credenhill, Herefordshire, England".

There were no stamps. A quick check inside the sack confirmed that each envelope was addressed to Jennifer Flores, but they'd all been placed here without ever seeing the inside of a post office.

Over the next couple of weeks, I continued to work on the backing of the couch and laid aside the letters, without informing Valeria Flores of their discovery.

A chance find at an exhibition some three weeks after I began work on the red couch changed everything.

"Music In The City, 1920-36" was a poorly organised affair but just before leaving, I discovered a photo of Jorge Flores, sitting on the very couch that was currently in my Retiro workshop. He had the look of a man whose heart could bear no further agony. Three months later and he was dead. The gloom on Jorge's face held me transfixed, drew me inside, pulled me down into the despair with him. I had to know where such melancholy came from.

I returned to Retiro immediately and fetched the letters into my study. Over the next three days, I immersed myself in a scandal of which I'd known nothing, but had quite clearly set Buenos Aires whispering in the Twenties.

I try to understand the reasons for your departure my precious Jennifer. But without you here by my side, I lack the ability to even think clearly. I was on the wharf, let it be known. I saw you in your yellow bonnet and couldn't dare come closer.

Jorge and his cousin Jennifer had been hopelessly in love, from what I could decipher from these unsent letters written to Jennifer after her 1923 departure. The scandal they'd left behind consumed Jorge in less than six months. In these yellowed pages, I witnessed a giant, a genius reduced to a wreck.

Neighbours, relatives, even friends whisper. Looks, glances strike my bare flesh, fingers point. "He's the one, do you remember?" they say, taking me for being deaf as well as heartbroken. I find no solace in my music; that which was an anthem for our love now merely a tuneless accompaniment to the emptiness I feel without you.

The letters carried no hint as to what had become of Jennifer, borne away to England by her shame-ridden family. Had she also written unsent letters? On the second evening, a clue within the finely penned lines presented itself to me.

As the day draws close and no news is forthcoming, my will to face the world lessens. I dream only of joining you. Tonight I write these few poor lines and no more.

Jorge Flores drank poison on February 14th, 1 924. The day of San Valentino and, I discovered, two years to the day after their first kiss. His mother alone carried the shame on frail shoulders. I continued to read through the increasingly erratic scrawl of the man, his final sentence is almost illegible.

My last thought will be you and that God gives you the courage.

I made some enquiries with a good friend who worked at La Nacion, Argentina's finest daily newspaper. A week later and Señora Flores, hands clasped tightly in front of her, was looking admiringly at the couch, now restored and looking as it did in the exhibition photo.

"Adriano, you could never understand what this means to me."

I laid my hand on her wrist and let it sit there awhile, hoping to communicate something of what I felt. Señora Flores' driver had just finished inching the couch onto the roof of the car when I heard the workshop phone ring. It was Victor, my journalist friend at La Nacion.

"Adriano, I heard back from England. The grave was found. It's best I read you the message I received last night. "Grave Found. Twyford Village. Stone reads: Jennifer Flores. Loving Daughter. Born July 18th, 1903. Died February 14th, 1924. Only God can take from us our sins."

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