Just as we reached Rossio Square along the Avenida da Liberdade, it stopped raining, and the Mercedes dropped us at the terrace of a bistro. The chairs were soaked, the table too; we carelessly put our two suitcases down in puddles. As the waiter took our orders, he glanced at them in dismay, or simply indifference.
Antonio and I had never worked together but we had come across each other several times. His photos had illustrated my investigation into the garimpeiros, destitute gold miners in the Orinoco Basin; I’d written a piece to go with his reportage on the tribes of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. When he decided to go back to Lisbon for this series of articles, it was his idea to suggest me to his editors. He thought I was still living in Paris, and when he learned that I was now the newspaper’s Portugal correspondent, he said these words (so odd that they were relayed to me): “I knew his fate would bring him to Lisbon at some point.”
I had been here only a few months. I wanted to leave Paris, to avoid the risk of bumping into Irene in the corridors of the editorial department, to recover from my absurd love for this girl with her outdated name, who didn’t want me. My father’s death in late June, his suicide—why not use the word—had made up my mind. My brother and I had sold the apartment on the rue Lecourbe, and with my share of the proceeds I decided to buy a one-bedroom apartment in either the Castelo quarter or Santa Justa, where my mother was born and where I had spent a few holidays as a child. In the meantime, I had rented a studio in São Paulo, right next to the goods port. It was a huge room that afforded few comforts but was whitewashed and sunny, at the top of a three-story building. It was the views more than anything that attracted me. From one window you could look out over the roofs, from the other you could see the Tagus. The bed was new and comfortable, and a phone line was connected. There was a small open kitchen and a shower, but the toilet was in the hallway. “For substantial things …” the landlady had explained. Then, gesturing toward the sink, she chuckled: “But for anything else, okay?” In her view, a refrigerator and two hotplates justified the label studio. The compressor on the fridge made more noise than a factory press, and I soon had to settle for unplugging it at night.
I had hung my only picture on the wall, a dog-eared, yellowed copy of a late nineteenth-century map of the Okavango Delta. I had set up my desk in a corner that was blocked on one side. I put my fax on it and the cube-shaped computer with its small black-and-white screen, whose successors I could never have imagined. Sitting there, I could look through the window to my right and see the docks. On nights when I couldn’t sleep, in other words almost every night, I found their rumblings comforting. I left one half-open and listened to the thunder of heavy diesel engines and fuel pumps, and the workers’ cries and laughter. Sometimes I got up before dawn and wandered through the steely sadness of static and traveling cranes. Living in the entrails of a port felt nostalgic and reassuring, like those English paintings of industrial landscapes, all in grays and blues. And Lisbon, a capital open to the seas, seemed to blend exoticism with civilization.
I had set myself two tasks for the imminent autumn: to finish the novel about Pescheux d’Herbinville, for which I had written only a few pages and chosen a title—The Clearing; then to translate Jaime Montestrela’s Contos aquosos, the collection of bizarre short stories that he subtitled Atlas inutilis. Montestrela was far from well known but, at a secondhand book stall in the Alfama neighborhood, I had stumbled across a copy of his Contos, and was instantly drawn to the whiff of dark humor they gave off. It was a thick volume, but they were only ironic and fantastical short stories, barely a few lines long, with a darkness reminiscent of Max Aub or Roland Topor. Out of almost a thousand, I had already translated about a hundred. Here is the first one I chanced on, the day I happened to open the book. It is a pretty good illustration of Montestrela’s mindset:
“Centuries before our era, Mongols of the Ouchis tribe worshipped an adolescent named Ohisha who, when he reached puberty, stopped aging. Fascinated by this phenomenon, they soon made him their leader. The young man did, however, die at the age of seventy-three. The legend of Ohisha ended with these words: ‘In his shroud, he was still identical to himself. For all those years, only his body had aged terribly.’”
I hadn’t got very far with this work when Antonio Fores called. He asked me to move in with him for a fortnight, to follow the Pineirho trial, and I was happy to bring an end to my isolation. I hadn’t left that room where I had adopted my own habits. Antonio booked a hotel on the Rua Primeiro de Dezembro in the center of town. It was quite expensive, but the paper was picking up the bill.
The Pallazo Meiras, which dated back to the early 1900s, was both tired looking and luxurious. At one time, this palace must have had some appeal, but renovations had reduced it to one of those international havens where no one ever feels at home, and no one even wants to unpack their bags. As I walked through the door I felt I had stepped into some strange ship washed up in the middle of the city, a steamer in pink marble and gray stone. The staff busied themselves languidly and managed to communicate their boredom to us. The front door was draped with balck-and-white striped fabric and opened onto a small paved courtyard. In this funereal setting, despite his red livery, the footman looked like an undertaker waiting for a coffin to carry.
Antonio had booked two suites on the third floor. They were exact mirror images of each other, and the two lounges were connected by heavy double doors. Once we had opened these, the central room made more sense, and our bedrooms were opposite each other. Antonio immediately dumped his equipment on a large desk in carved oak, and I put my files on its twin. The brownish leather of two armchairs clashed with the straw yellow of two rustic-looking chairs; the balconies looked out over Restauradores Square, and if we didn’t opened the windows the noise was tolerable.
It was ten years since Antonio had been in Lisbon. He had recently bought a tiny one-bedroom flat in the old Belleville quarter of Paris, and I knew he had also lived in Rio, as well as a few months in London’s Soho. He had made a name for himself in the small world of war photographers.
In the taxi on the way back from the airport, I asked why the long absence, and he just said: “A thing. A thing with a woman.” We didn’t exchange another word, and I regretted displaying such curiosity. But that first evening, in a pousada in the port where we were having a last glass of bagaço, he started talking, in snippets, as if one memory led to another. From the emotion in his voice and the muddled way he confided in me, I suspected he had never opened up to anyone and could do so at last only because I was a foreigner. I didn’t interrupt him.
* * *
Antonio Fores is eleven, he lives in the old Bairro Alto quarter. Known as just Tonio, he is hurtling down the long flight of cement steps on the Travessa do Carmo. It is early May, the morning light is more blinding than golden. His schoolbag lurches in every direction on his back, buffeted from one shoulder to the other like a panicking rider on a runaway horse.
Every school day, Tonio races the Eléctrico W, which stops outside his house at 8:18 in the morning. Tonio had trouble getting up today, the eighteen minutes past has already left and he’s waiting for the twenty-four minutes past. He will be late for school, for sure.
The Eléctrico W is the yellow and white funicular tram, which carries its cargo of housewives and office workers every morning—except for Sundays and public holidays. True, it’s ancient, but, whatever the weather, it trundles unfailingly from the Bairro Alto to the exhaust fumes and traffic jams of Baixa.
A few feet ahead of Tonio, the W drops down the hill on its steel rails, making terrible metallic screeching sounds. The pantographs splutter with bright sparks against the azure sky, the traction cable at the back rises up from the rusted channel cut open in the cement. Tonio runs behind it, keeping an eye on every sway of the cable, imagining it is the trailing black tail of a tired old dragon. In the rear of the carriage, a kid with a lollipop presses his grubby face against the steamed up window and stares at Tonio, his empty eyes crushed by boredom.
Tonio runs. He knows every paving slab on the Travesso do Carmo, every stone, every porch: right on the corner the step is a bit high, you have to stretch your leg right out to avoid tripping; here, to turn as sharply as possible, you can spin on the “No Parking” sign; there, on that street corner, it’s better to slow down, last week he knocked down a smartly dressed old man coming out of a pousada. Of course, he could run just behind the W, on the concrete slope, but he’s already fallen once, catching his shoe in the rim of the rail, and it hurt too much. It left him with a scar as white and shiny as a trail of salt, and the pharmacist, Mr. Pereira, claimed he would have a mark there “till the day he dies.” The thought of his own death—he was only six at the time—terrified him, and he started crying. His mother kissed him to console him, and turned angrily on the pharmacist:
“Mr. Pereira, really! What sort of thing is that to say to a child?”
With all that, the W has got a little way ahead, and Tonio runs like a boy possessed.
“Go on, Tonio, go on, faster, you’ve got to turn back time,” laughs the fishmonger, and he lobs a hail of crushed ice at the boy, with its strong smell of seaweed and saltwater. Tonio ducks to avoid it and carries on with his race. Just ahead, the tram turns to the left and disappears around the corner. Tonio slows abruptly, skids in the dust and gravel, and comes to a stop, breathless.
This is because, after the corner, the steps end and, with them, the Travessa do Carmo’s thin sidewalk. The W forks off and continues on its way alone in the clear cool shade of a narrow corridor between the buildings. Deadened by the shuttered façades, the noise drops, becomes less clear. At the end, fifty paces further, the dark mouth of a tunnel gapes, and when the tram plies into it, the neon lights in the cabin and the round red tail light come on. In the underground darkness, sparks fly from the catenaries, lighting up the curve of the vaulted ceiling, like the thousand fires of hell in the illustrated Bible his aunt gave him.
The glowing sparks fade in the distance, the sound of the Eléctrico W is muffled by the hubbub of the city, and Tonio hears someone behind him say:
“Hey, you really run fast …”
She is seven years old, maybe eight, big black eyes, a straight nose. She has long dark hair, neatly smoothed. Tonio can’t speak, he is still out of breath, his hair stuck to his sweating face.
“Well, my name’s Duck, it is.”
“What? What’s your name?”
“Duck, like I said. Everyone calls me that. You can too, if you like, you can call me Duck. And what’s your name?”
Tonio stays silent for a moment, rubbing his aching legs.
“Antonio … Well, Tonio. Do you live round here?” he asks.
She points to one of the buildings that look down over the W’s route. Its white façade is dazzling in the sunlight, and Tonio screws up his eyes.
“Over there. You can’t see it from here.”
She lowers her arm, and watches him with a pout. Tonio is intrigued, but he’s also getting impatient.
“I have to go to school. I’m late. Aren’t you?”
“Yes, yes, of course I’m late. Well then? Go on, keep running, go to school, if it’s that important.”
With a slow flick of her wrist she swishes her black hair over her shoulder. Tonio doesn’t know this yet but it’s the gesture of a woman.
“Do you run after the Eléctrico like that every day? I’ve never seen you.”
“Usually it’s the eighteen minutes past.”
She sits down on a large granite bollard, playing with the dust with the tip of her sandal.
“And will you be late again tomorrow?” she asks.
“No, I’ll be on time tomorrow.”
“So we won’t see each other again. That’s your bad luck. Well, hi from Duck.”
She stands up and runs off, and Tonio watches her until she turns the corner at the top of the street and disappears.
The next day Tonio leaves late again. The little girl is there, on the bollard. She has already let one W go by, and left her mother wondering why she got up so early.
From that day on, no one ever saw Duck without Tonio, or Tonio without Duck, and Tonio would often joke that Duck had been his prize in a running race.
For his fifteenth birthday, Tonio is given a camera, a Russian Zenit E that is cheap but temperamental, nothing is automatic and it weighs as much as an iron. His family insists he take his first picture. He refuses. It will be of Duck.
A little later, one January morning, it snows in Lisbon. Tonio is waiting for Duck at the huge miradouro on the Rua de Santa Catarina, which overlooks the docks and the port. Duck is late, and Tonio is hopping from one foot to the other in an old fur-lined jacket given to him by his father that makes him look like a soldier. Duck is now thirteen, she is almost as tall as him, although he’s nearly sixteen, and her youthful face already radiates a more unsettling beauty. Tonio still calls her Duck, has never stopped calling her that. He is cold, really cold, he stamps his feet on the frozen ground. In the distance, on the icy, muddy waters of the Tagus, the ferry heading for Barreiro passes the one arriving from Seixal and salutes it with a blast of its horn.
Antonio waits. Duck has been late before, but this morning he feels a new twinge of anxiety, an inexplicable but mild apprehension. It is market day and he lets his eye roam over the crowd of passersby. He thinks he spots her a hundred times, in a flyaway lock of hair, the pattern on a dress, a stranger’s gait. Every time he gets that fleeting quiver, that constriction deep inside him, and each time the disappointment. The waiting feels easier because of this endlessly impatient searching.
All at once, woolen fingers warm with life come and cover his face, startling him.
“Don’t turn around,” she says. “Close your eyes.”
He obeys with a smile. The woolen fingers slip away. He can guess, Duck is in front of him, her breath is chocolaty, blowing warmly over his chin.
“Make sure your eyes are closed, don’t cheat.”
The fingers slide over his temples, into his hair, gently drawing him closer. Tonio’s lips feel the touch of other lips, that open slightly. He stops breathing and opens his eyes, just as Duck closes hers, he has never seen them from so close, those long eyelashes resting on the soft pink of her cheeks. She pushes him away, just a little, then presses herself to him again.
“You looked,” she whispers in his ear.
She pulls away, takes him by the hand, and drags him toward the balustrade of the miradouro. Snowflakes twirl around them, catching in their hair as they fly in the wind. It is a north wind, blowing a little harder now. On the Tagus, the ferry from Barreiro goes into reverse, its propellers churning the dirty water into shining creamy whirlpools. Tonio looks lost, helpless, he wishes he could talk but can’t manage a single word. Duck comes over to him and puts her arms around him. Then she takes off her gloves and slips her hands into his.
“Warm me up, Tonio, I’m cold.”
Ducks fingers touch his, squeeze them. Something’s different. Tonio’s eyes cloud over, he turns to look at her, but she puts a finger over his mouth and he knows he mustn’t speak.
All she says is:
“Tonio … I’m a woman, today.”
He doesn’t understand.
“I’m a woman,” she repeats.
She says it softly and Tonio can tell she wants to lead him into another world, a world too big for him, and mysterious too, a world deeper than the sea, and he wants to follow her there, in spite of everything. Then he wants to speak, to say all the words welling up inside him, but she kisses him again, he holds her to his chest, and it is their first true kiss.
The night she was fifteen, Duck met up with Tonio. It was one of those luminous stifling August nights scattered with shooting stars you could almost hear whistling through the sky. Tonio and Duck took cover in the W’s tunnel because the next day was Sunday and the tram doesn’t run on Sundays. They lay down on the air mattress that Tonio had blown up and covered with a big thick bedcover that smelled of bleach and lavender. A family of bats lived in the roof but Tonio made sure they wouldn’t do them any harm.
“You’ll still have to protect me, Tonio.”
She presses herself to him. She has put a drop of perfume on the back of her neck, and Tonio breathes in its musk and dark fruits.
They stay like that for a long time, not daring to talk, and it is in that position that they fall asleep. In the morning, when the dawning day sends long shadows into the tunnel, they make love, with trusting awkwardness. Everything is new, their bodies so alive they don’t exist.