Saturday, 14 September 2013

In a Quiet Time


On the evening of 5th August 2013, I arrived at Lisbon Airport from a pleasant tour of five European countries and was facing an all-night journey by four buses to my home in the Algarve. As the melancholy of Portugal began once again to enfold me, I struggled with my luggage to the first bus, the Lisbon city one. I waited long, and finally it came. But, as I boarded it, my left knee seized up, I was in severe pain, and I could hardly move that leg.

The sombre people in the bus showed the usual Portuguese lack of interest in me, and when I arrived at the huge Oriente Station other Portuguese only commented that my trousers were falling down. There were several hours to wait at the grim multi-station complex at Oriente, but just as well, because I had to recuperate.

I finally crawled rather than walked on to the coach that was going to the Algarve. Sitting in the narrow seat without being able to stretch my leg caused pain, but at least I could just let myself be moved on. The three hours on the coach went quite quickly. But when we reached the the first bus station in the Algarve, the bus turned out to be continuing westwards to Lagos rather than east towards my own home near the Spanish frontier.

Another passenger had to help me down towards the floor. People were being hurried towards the bus that was proceeding east to the regional capital of Faro, and one of the bus drivers jeered at me because I could not pick up my heavy luggage. But he had to carry it nonetheless. I could not have done it myself.

As we travelled through the aromatic night of the Algarve, the white buildings and golf courses of Vilamoura, and the high rises of Quarteira, seemed like ghost cities, and I determined to get a taxi when we arrived at Faro. The enormous wait for the fourth bus towards my home, the difficulty of stowing the luggage and dealing with the driver, the journey, and the long walk from the stop to my house, seemed too much to bear.

Once again, I was helped out of the bus at Faro and my bags were placed around me at the seat near the stop. Now I was alone. There was almost no traffic, no people, but, opposite, an all-night cafe that I had used before was open. I was hungry and contemplated trying to reach it. I got to the kurb and gingerly put my foot forward, but a great shot of pain made me turn back and sink back onto the seat and rest there.

Now a taxi came ambling into view. I hailed it, the youngish, blond driver quickly assessed my situation, and was soon helping me and my luggage into his cab with solicitude. I felt great joy. As we drove off, we began talking in our non-native Portuguese, and I learnt that this was Yuriy, from Ukraine. Soon we came to the suburbs of Faro, our talk turned to family and personal matters, and he told me that he lived in the city with his wife and young children. I experienced the usual disappointment of the homosexual. But then we came to the more countrified road, I fell silent, and it seemed a beautiful, peaceful journey, with few stars.

Finally, I directed him through the housing estates of Altura, and we drove up to my dilapidated villa, whose entrance was almost blocked by dark and forbidding shrubbery. The meter showed a little less than sixty Euros, but I had withdrawn that sum from the machine in the bus station at Oriente, and decided to reward my kind helper with a round figure.

He got out to help me into the house. I was nervous about its appearance, and cack-handedly dropped my keys into the vegetation in an attempt to open the post-box. I would never have found them on my own, but a few seconds was sufficient for Yuriy to retrieve the bunch. Then, at my direction, he opened my postbox, which tended to be so difficult, and I had my post.

We cut a path to the front door, and the key was so stiff in the lock that I could never have opened the door on my own. But after a minute or two of struggle, Yuriy had his usual success. The electric light did not switch on, and I assumed that, as on many previous occasions when I had returned from journeys, the electricity had been cut off for shortage of funds in my Portuguese account.

But I was in my house now and knew the way to my bed in the darkness and had no immediate need to look at the post. I thanked Yuriy and told him to go, dropped my bags, and with a sob of mixed pain and joy staggered towards the bed and stretched myself out on the mattress.

About a week later, Yuriy appeared again to find out how I was, and I was delighted to see him, and got him to help me with fetching shopping and cutting down shrubbery. But basically I was now alone in my house. Nor did this entirely displease me. For I had done so many journeys. Most recently there had been the four grand tours, and the two succeeding trips, which were more voyages of self-discovery. These paralleled the six extensive surveys of the five continents I had made in the years before my imprisonment. And in the long years I used to visit my mother's villa when she was alive there had been the five trips to Morocco and the sad one to New York.

Few people knew the world and the varieties of humanity as I did. And few were more sick of them. So seeing I was now more or less crippled, I entered what I have called my "quiet time", when I hunkered down in my house, did nothing I did not feel like doing, and restricted my contact with people in the settlement of Altura to the minimum that seemed psychologically sensible.

The best days of the whole period were the first three, when I saw no one at all, and did not go out of the house. The first day I just lay in bed, getting up to drink water and eat what little food was in the house - crackers with honey, dry cornflakes, and, with a supreme effort, the peaches that were just then in full bloom in my back garden (I called them peaches - they may be an analogous fruit). I managed trips to the toilet by arranging a row of strategic chairs to grip on to lest I fall.

On the second day I began the unpacking and arrangement on my shelves of the books I had bought in Paris, Heidelberg, Thessaloniki, Athens, Rome and so on. By evening I had reached the stone table in the sunny garden with the remains of my amarguinha, the bitter-sweet almond liqueur that is such a typical taste of Portugal. There I leafed through the first chapter of The Sentimental Education by Flaubert, which I had bought in Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki. In the Greek city I had just sat among the huge buildings curving down to the fabled Mediterranean with the book in my bag, but here in more homely Portugal I actually began it, with the sun setting directly between the lemon and the rose.

The next day I became very hungry, but by evening there was still one more peach that lay within my grasp, and I managed to reach it, and then, with a most determined application of what electrical know-how I possess, I managed to switch on the lights. So it was a further half-hour to stay up, sitting on my comfortable sofa, with Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles performing cabaret songs on the turntable of my mother's ancient stereo system.

The following morning I was ready for my first excursion into Altura. I walked like a man of a hundred, but just down the road from me is the clinic of the charming Udo Pohlschneider, and in his relaxing consulting room overlooking the quiet square, with Buddhist music, and conversation in a mixture of English and German, he took away the worst of my pain. He had not been able to see me immediately, but at a nearby cafe I had feasted on cheese sandwich, milky coffee and orange juice and leafed through H.G. Wells' Short History of the World.

It is now four years since I was able to enter into my mother's house, the third of the homes in my adult life that I did not choose. The flat in south London and the one on the southern outskirts of the Lisbon area came to me easily, they were in rough but pastoral city areas that appealed to me, and I loved them both, and was sad to get rid of them when the time came.

But my house in Altura was an enormous struggle to acquire. The streets surrounding it are hot, harsh and still. Although the place is a refuge, and although it is very large and even beautiful in its run-down way, I cannot help hating it. Pray God I do not live here for ever. In fact, I could not do so. I would have no money and die before my time. No one here would lift a finger to help me if I was without money.

The psychology of the Portuguese is a complex business. But these people have never been, like the Italians, the spoiled darlings of the Northern Europeans, gleefully living up to every clearly-understood cliche about themselves. And because they have not been loved, they cannot love in return, even though it is in their instinct to do so. They are not an unfriendly people, but they are not friendly either. Their attitude is a sort of blank, hidden, if necessary, under sympathetic words. And a deep sadness lies over this country of neglect and shame. The sun shines, but not in people's hearts.

At the cafes I frequent I am served in near silence. The person serving turns away immediately I approach and does not return my initial greeting. Five minutes are allowed to pass before taking my order. I see a sign in one café that says, "In this establishment, people enter, order, pay and leave". But it also takes five minutes for them to allow me to pay at that café. If I settle the bill there with sufficient humility, my final salutation will be returned before the person quickly looks elsewhere.

Well, Charles, is it you that wants love? Is that delicious cheese sandwich not enough? Can you help them in their profitable drugs business?

The said business is  conducted partly on the beach just to the east of the illegally 12-storied hotel, which is owned by Miguel Madureira Celorico. This is the beach of Cabeço, found on land bought by the Angolan dictator for a golf course and luxury villas that were never completed and which is therefore now turned over to nocturnal landings when all the lights go out here in the last hour of darkness. Or it is conducted from the beach just to the west. Or, just beyond the Praia Verde to the east, there is the Ricocu ("Rich Arse") beach, totally deserted and the private property of a rich and distinguished but mafioso family.

Oh, well, Charlie, aren't your research skills, aided by your excellent knowledge of Portuguese, brilliant? I'm proud of you for finding all that out!

And, if you don't like the drug-importing Portuguese, perhaps you prefer the Germans and Dutch dealers who are waiting to receive the goods when it grows light by the caravan park or near the mysterious gently-rumbling huts by the hotel with barred windows and surrounded by barbed wire? Or perhaps you like the Bulgarians who work in the orange fields by day and deal and fight in the evening, handsome and friendly with their dagger faces? But you surely can't prefer the Spaniards, even more adept with the drugs, who bang the food down on the table and flounce off with a metaphorical click of castanets, which your own sombre and preoccupied people would never do?

And, anyway, does it really matter that Altura, where a surprising number of people seem suddenly to lapse from Portuguese into Italian, is more an international criminal organisation than it is a place? Does it matter that the inhabitants loathe me, a homosexual yet strangely triumphant stranger in their midst, endlessly coming up with pert replies to their unpleasant demands, or marching past with trousers falling down and carrying huge bags of shopping? Should I even worry if this is the chief Portuguese base of the Neapolitan Camorra?

For there is another side to the coin of my almost total failure to  click with these morose folk. It lies in the attitude of contempt and barely concealed hostility which I am able to unleash at any time and which contributes to the atmosphere of luxuriant solitude I am able to maintain at my house. I will give just one example of this.

I mentioned in a previous post that a neighbour called Josefa (not a Portuguese, a Galician) had offered some years ago to do my washing for the same price I would pay if I took it to the launderette. That price was Eight Euros Fifty. For a while Josefa did the washing at this price, then it became ten and, finally, by degrees, it became twenty Euros, however large or small the bag, or bags, of washing I gave her.

When my mother was alive, and suffering from Alzheimer, Josefa had given her a lot of free help, and her Portuguese husband António acquiesced in this, while not approving of it. Later the couple were friendly and welcoming during the long years I was struggling to get the house, and since I have had it they have also been quite kind, being willing, for instance, to pay bills on my behalf when I am abroad, on supply of the money. They have usually, but not always, been scrupulous in repaying any change that was due to me. I have innumerable times visited their excellent, overpriced and totally empty restaurant in the nearby town of Monte Gordo. Recently I was able to negotiate a standard price of seventeen Euros for a simple meal: vegetable pancake with potatoes, a glass of wine, a bottle of water, and a small coffee, served with usual hostility and occasional affability by António.

I once liked them, or at least her, but not now. During the "quiet time", I started to kick up rough about the price of the washing. Josefa was hurt, self-righteous and adamant. She began appearing more and more often and earlier and earlier in the morning, first to collect the dirty clothes, and then to deliver them in many instalments, plonking them down on a chest by the door where I had created a decorative display of treasures from my travels. Then she would slam the door from the outside before I could close it myself. I was handing her the note of twenty in grimmer and grimmer silence.

I have been writing this post in slow stages, and the date as I continue today is 1st October 2013, almost two months after I arrived home. A week or two ago I visited the restaurant and sat outside in silence and windy discomfort. Now I was being served like a stranger, in the same way as in the cafes. Towards leaving time, Josefa attempted a more friendly conversation and mentioned the washing. I told her abruptly that I did not need her services in that department any more.

After a quick walk around the square. I picked a quarrel with her husband over a trivial issue. Then I waited for the lift that they always gave me back to Altura after the meal. He delayed longer and longer with the trivial business of the restaurant. Finally I walked out without saying anything to them. Then I sat on the beach almost crying with relief that I had got these people out of my hair.

A week later, I took my washing to the local laundry, and found with delight that they had dropped their price, and could now do a very reasonable bag for twelve Euros. Today I went again, and the price has dropped to ten. It does my heart good to save on the washing. But I still feel slightly sad and guilty about the poorer relations with my friends.

And when one reaches the haunts of the English - the Tavira Treasure charity shop, say - the talk is entirely of possessions and material things and there is no comfort there either. "Always keep a house in England," one radiant old lady says. "It doesn't matter if you have one in Portugal, or France, or both, always keep a house in England. You never know when you might need it."

One soon turns away from such people in despair, but not before one has extracted a pair of serviceable trousers from them for one Euro. Then it can be fun to cross the river to the more flyblown Portuguese fair, and sink heavily onto a park-bench, plastic bags gathered around one, to finger one's new LP of The Merry Widow, eat a banana, and finally rise up towards the local bus.

So is the life of seamless apprehension and contemplation in the Algarve a tolerable road towards death? Well, as the poet Heine puts it:

Immerhin! Mich wird umgeben
Gottes Himmel, dort wie hier...

When I think about death now, I think of my favourite writer, Patricia Highsmith. Of course, she has her faults. Her delight in the charnel house of humanity may be rather too evident, and she certainly cannot tell right from wrong. But what a mistress of every department of the art of writing! What a grand explorer of what it means to be human!

I didn't go on with The Sentimental Education after that evening in the garden, although I thought the first chapter very fine, and turned instead to Ripley Under Ground, by Miss Highsmith. The title is to be taken literally. Ripley almost ends up being buried in a grave that he originally dug for someone else, whom he killed in a cellar, but he gets out of that grave, and pursues the man who had tried to bury him across Europe, to save him from suicide, but that man commits suicide anyway, and Ripley hacks at his body in order to burn and bury it, before carefully preserving the remaining ashes, in order to pretend that these are the remains of someone else, whom he, Ripley, impersonated, and who also committed suicide.

Am I any better than Ripley? Is anyone else? I have been in the dock at the Old Bailey for trying to get someone thrust into a car at my occupied house in the Algarve, driven over the border to Spain, killed there, and the body disposed of in the thick vegetation, to confuse the police. Was that nice?

And, on a more trivial scale, there are two people in Altura who are taking money off me almost every day under the guise of friendship. I said in a previous post that I liked the amusing younger druggy more than the rapacious old alcoholic woman. But a few nights ago I met Joaquim the Breba in the dark main road of Altura, and expected that he would greet me with his usual shouts of joy, but instead he came over to me, and stared at me so long and hard and so silently and with such venom that I thought he would hit me.

And the old woman, Dona Isabel, her constant wheedling for more and more money is almost intolerable. She sits outside the Snack-Bar Piri-Piri, and is one of a poisonous gang associated with the place. There is the flirtatious middle-aged owner who calls herself Arlete, her ageing and silent paramour Senhor António, and the handsome and violent younger Bulgarian Alex, who has a hold on Arlete. These are usually all in the rather insalubrious interior. But when I pass the place on the bus and see Dona Isabel sitting so silently and still and alone outside it, I am filled with a stab of pity.

And what about her young friend, or possibly her illegitimate daughter, the beautiful and refined and aristocratic woman who shares the Christian name of my favourite writer, who mixes delicate appeal with a smoker's coarseness, who is full of friendliness and civilisation and charm, but who regularly goes to Spain to smuggle drugs, with Dona Isabel to help her? Patrícia is widely suspected of having committed one terrible crime, and I believe she may have committed another.

And what of my mother, who slept in later years with the man thirty years her junior, Flávio José Custódio Rosa, the man whom I tried to murder, a person widely reputed to be her son and who would thus be my half-brother? Well, she did have Alzheimer's. She didn´t know what she was doing.

And perhaps the worst of all, my father, that German soldier in Italy from the Second World War, will it ever be known what he had done, what horrors he took part in? Yes, but about two years ago, two months before his death at around the age of ninety, I managed to track him down to the small town in Northern Portugal where he was living with his wife of many years.

And they received me most kindly. I sat with the couple in their quiet room and we had pleasant conversation and they gave me a good meal. My father proudly showed me his basement workshop and he liked the present of a china elephant that I had brought them. The years of philandering and hiding and impersonation and a false marriage, the years of lying and killing, were gone. He was a silent but friendly old man. He cried a little in the evening of that day, when I was sitting with him in his sitting-room and his wife was in the kitchen.

And a little over two months later, he came into the sitting-room from the toilet. He just sighed softly and was dead.







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