ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 01

I was in Lisbon and thought of you

Author | Autor: Luiz Ruffato

Translated by Anthony Doyle

How I took up smoking again

I spent my first day in Portugal asleep under the blankets at Hotel do Vizeu in Madragoa, a bloody ancient neighborhood with narrow lanes and made-over houses, a place so old that even the people are in tatters, old ladies wrapped in black shawls, old codgers in woolen caps shuffling up and down the hills, panting, leaning up against the walls, extravagant people who look like they went to bed young and woke up the next day old and infirm, half-blind, with aching joints, loose teeth and swollen legs, afraid and distrustful of everything and everyone, always cantankerous, grumbling incomprehensibly under their breath, snapping at the slightest question, and as soon as I set foot in Lisbon, the guy at immigration looked at my passport photo – I said good morning, he ignored me – stamped the page and waved me on, and I wasn’t much impressed so far, but I guessed he must’ve gotten out the wrong side of bed and I went on my way, checking all around until I found my luggage rolling lonely on a conveyor belt, scratched and battered, which left me livid, cause it’d been brand-spanking new when I’d dispatched it, against my will, back in Brazil, and so to get it back now, in that state, was a right lack of consideration, and on the way out I stopped to ask a security guard if he knew of a cheap boarding house, something simple, "just until I find my feet", and he pointed me toward an information desk, where a girl attended me, gushing as soon as she saw I was Brazilian, telling me all about her relatives in Rio de Janeiro, an uncle, cousins, etc., and asked if I knew the city, to which I said I did, of course, having "been there five or so times", and she sighed "Ah!", the beaches, the people, the music, confessing that she’d love to visit the country but that she’d never had the opportunity, and she promises to fix me up with something special, so I said no, for the time being, I just needed a cheap boarding house, "Something simple, just until I find my feet", and then she raises an eyebrow, detective-like, and asks me so-what-brings-me-to- Europe-then, and I blame the unemployment in Cataguases, "Cataguases is where I live, see", and the problem with Noemi, "Noemi’s my wife", admitted to an asylum in Leopoldina, the loss of custody of Pierre, "the heir", for all those Carvalhos to raise, "a rabble if ever there was one", and so the plan is to work my socks off, make a pile of money, then go back to Brazil, buy some real estate and live off the rent, and, who knows, "Nothing’s impossible", maybe even "remarry", and she gasps and tells me not to repeat that to anyone, "absolutely no one", cause if they hear you, they’ll catch you and send you straight back, right there and then, and me, traumatized enough as it was, decide to stay single for the rest of my life, and so she makes a few phone calls and abandons some pallid, ill-bred gringos in the queue so she can see me out, in the freezing cold, to a taxi, where she gives the driver an address and says "Adeusinho", and, I’m ashamed to say it, but I never did go back there to thank her for her kindness, though the thought crossed my mind, but it was all such a mad rush, and the airport was out of the way, so I kept putting it off, putting it off, until it was, well, off.
  Old Seabra demanded payment up-front and limped his way up the wooden stairs, pointing into a communal bathroom at the end of the hall, for bathing and other necessities, then he shows me into a tiny room, clean but reeking of naphthalene, with a single bed and wardrobe, and he draws back the curtains and extols the view, and I was exhausted, with a buzzing in my ear and a hollow head, I hated the whole airplane thing, legs cramped up like that, and I couldn’t relax sitting there, so I took a stretch in the john, with my loose bladder and dicky tummy, the thing rattling about up there the whole time, and just to think that if anything went wrong there was nowhere to run to, sweet Jesus! I swore that I’d only set foot in one of those things again on the way back to Brazil, after which it would be two feet firmly on the ground, forever, and there’s old Seabra behind me, peering through his tiny blue eyes, telling me that the house does not do breakfast, that the door is closed at ten, so the guests all have a key and are responsible for their own comings and goings, but that if I noticed anything suspicious I should call the police, in fact, he was on terms with the Chief Justice, having fought together in Africa; they’d spent part of their youth – "The best part" – serving in Mozambique, which was where he got the lame leg, "shrapnel, right here", and insomnia no pill could cure, but he could never understand why, after all that effort, they just handed the colonies over to the blacks, as if on a tray, but if I needed anything, I was just to call. Exhausted, I dived under the covers and went out like a light, and when I woke up later, dizzy, jetlagged, in an unfamiliar place and hearing strange voices coming from who knows where, I thought to myself, in despair, "Serginho, you are dead, at the very least", and a sorrow came over me, they would never find me here, no-one knew where I was, buried like an itinerant flung into a shallow, unmarked grave, I, who had dreamt of a beautiful ceremony, with entourage and vigil, everyone grieving (men in dark suits, women behind black veils), wooden coffin, golden handles, four candlesticks with imposing tapers, a marble tomb complete with portrait and engraved name and dates of birth and death, with a eulogy offered to my good self, and lots, but lots of weeping and gnashing of teeth, after all, the deceased will have deserved it, and I thought of poor Pierre, enduring the imprecations of the rabble, the shame of it all, his father, hot off the plane in Portugal, and he goes and pops his clogs, with not so much as an explanation, and, wading ever deeper into depression, I turned over and went back to sleep.
  I rose early the next day, wrapped up good and warm and was rearing to go in search of that contact Oliveira had given me; I went down to reception and found it empty, so I rang the bell two or three times, no-one came, so I rang it again, impertinently, until a crotchety old lady finally emerged, drying her hands in her apron and crankily protesting that she wasn’t deaf, I offered an awkward good morning that went unanswered, so I repeated more loudly and she ignored me by asking what it was I wanted, and I said I didn’t want anything, actually, it was just that, as I saw there was no-one at reception, I figured it might be dangerous, you know, someone could come in and rob the place, and the old woman glared at me, fuming, and says "You aren’t in Brazil now, fool!", and she started cursing again, so I slipped out, and Mrs Palmira’s had it in for me ever since, excommunicating me, exorcising me at every turn, it bothered me at first, so I started trying to make conversation, small-talk, dropping a compliment here, a little praise there, but she spared no effort slandering me to the other guests, pure fabrications to my detriment, but thank God old Seabra and she didn’t exactly see eye to eye, in fact he did everything he could to spite her, if she spoke ill of me, he treated me kindly, if she disparaged me, he lifted my spirits, and so I headed off down the road, finding my way to the banks of the Tagus, so swaggeringly full of water it made the poor Pomba look like a garden brook, I bought a postcard to show the doubting Thomases back in Cataguases, but sometimes I think I won’t bother showing it at all, why humiliate our little old river?, it might even fall ill, dry up, you never can tell how people will react, and I mulled that over the whole day, as I wandered about among the massive tankers, asking after one Rua do Vilar, drawing blanks every time, until, when night finally fell, exhausted and pissed off, I threw away the address, because that Oliveira had probably thrown me a curve, after all, he probably knew by now, so what could he gain from helping me? Nothing! It made me mad to think I’d been so dumb, he must have been laughing his ass off over there, relaying the feat to every rummy clown at the Beira Bar, the whole of Taquara Preta taking the piss, "Ha, ha, ha", well let them, I thought, I’ve cleared so many hurdles in my time that it will take a lot more than that to knock me off-course, so they think I’m a fool? Well, they’ll see, retreat to regroup, so I sat down in one of those small tasca bars, as I hadn’t had lunch yet, and ordered the dish-of-the-day – borrego, or roast lamb – washed down with three glasses of the house wine, and little by little I started to pine for the days when I used to smoke, and it occurred to me to buy a pack of cigarettes, cause Dr. Fernando would never know, not here, but no sooner had I formulated the thought than there came his voice, protesting: "What’s this, Serginho! Are you going to let down the thousands of people who have accompanied your Herculean efforts all these years?", oh blast it! and, ages afterwards, when I told this story to Jerê, a Brazilian friend who makes a living playing guitar at a bar on São João do Estoril beach, he says "Ah yeah, Rua do Vilar, down by the quays", and he’s a well-travelled man, even knows Spain, and he says that sure, the place does exist, but it’s down by the quays in Oporto, a city up north, which they say is very pretty and welcoming, but I’ve never been there, and so old Oliveira was restored to my list of good eggs, a man reprieved after a stay in Hell, which I fear left him a little sore, poor fella.

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