Last week I went back to Belo Horizonte, back to where it all happened, for the first time in two years. I stayed in a cheap hotel on Avenida Parana, near the bus station, and I remembered how streets such as Parana, filled with grim budget clothing stores and gangs of scuffling teenagers during the day, deserted and sinister at night, had terrified me when I first arrived in Brazil. Going back now after two years of living in the tropically beautiful but hardscrabble nordeste, Belo Horizonte, buoyed by the powerful southeastern economy, seems as opulent and as comfortable as Paris.
I went back to visit The Ex-Girlfriend. It was The Ex-Girlfriend who was responsible for taking me away from the glossy Brazil that many foreigners find themselves mired in - the shopping malls and the expensive hotels and the apartment buildings along the beach that have more in common with Miami than they have with the lives of most ordinary Brazilians. The Ex-Girlfriend lives in a poor-ish neighbourhood called Neighbourhood A (it is not called this, obviously, but for the moment it may be unwise to use actual names in relation to this story) in Belo Horizonte´s ramshackle northern suburbs. I meet her downtown at midnight on what is Valentine’s Day in the UK, but not in Brazil, because February in Brazil is carnaval, and the greeting card and chocolate companies would never allow their annual binge spend to fall so close to the excesses of the holiday. We drink too much cold Antartica beer and talk about the past - how the Minerao, the city’s football stadium, sounds filled with 60,000 atleticanos on match day, whether Jamie still brews his own lethal cachaça in his bar near the apartment we once shared in Neighbourhood B, how amongst all the things that I miss about Belo Horizonte, fresh pao de queijo and coffee in one of the city’s hundreds of bakeries is perhaps that which I miss the most.
The Ex-Girlfriend tells me she has recently made some new friends in Neighbourhood C, a favela which borders onto Neighbourhood A. This in itself is no great cause for alarm - while such areas are often the scene of tremendous suffering and poverty, not to mention ferocious battles between drugs gangs and the police, equally they are home to millions of ordinary people seeking only to live what the country’s President Lula recently described as lives of dignity. Lula himself, to the confusion and shame of many unreconstructed middle and upper class Brazilians, grew up in conditions of penury similar to many who live in the favelas.
Then it’s time for The Ex-Girlfriend to go. Come and meet my friend Carla tomorrow, she says. You’ll like her. And she winks and is gone into the night.
We meet again the next day at Carla’s house in Neighbourhood C. Carla is bright and pretty and wears a tight pink tube top saying "Sexy Girl" - the kind of twenty year old girl who if born to a different kind of family might be getting ready to start classes at university, dreaming, as most Brazilians who go to university seem to dream, of becoming a lawyer or a judge (a hope more often borne of the promise of a fat salary than any great reforming social zeal). It is Saturday afternoon. Carla pours me a cold beer. She goes outside and picks a few small, grubby flowers from the garden and puts them in a glass on the kitchen table. We sit, Carla, The Ex-Girlfriend and I, and talk. Later Carla’s friend Eduarda, who is also bright and pretty, drags herself into the kitchen and sits with us. Eduarda’s legs are shrunken and useless and her shorts are sooty black from having pulled herself along the street on her way here. Outside car stereos play Brazilian funk, the unofficial sound of today’s favela youth, and before the sun sets I look out the window and see the tiny houses on the other side of the hill flare brilliant white and gold. When a passing car plays MC Creu the girls scream and jump to their feet and dance, for tomorrow night Creu will play here in Belo Horizonte and all three have tickets. Watching them jump and shout I think how they could be young women enjoying the gentle idleness of a Saturday afternoon almost anywhere in the world.
After that the weekend ends quickly. I see other friends on Saturday night, visit with The Ex-Girlfriend’s family on Sunday. By Monday lunchtime I am back in Recife. As I stand at the bus stop outside the airport and feel the heat prickling my collar and the bright clarity of the air I feel as though I am home again, though of course this is not home, and perhaps never will be. I think again of The Ex-Girlfriend and of Carla and the afternoon I spent in Carla’s kitchen, until the bus comes and my mind moves on to other things, things I need to get at the supermarket, work’s dry tedium, buying a newspaper.
The call comes a week later. The Ex-Girlfriend tells me how on the Thursday after I left she was walking idly with Carla in Neighbourhood C when four boys on motorbikes pulled up alongside them. They shot The Ex-Girlfriend once in the arm and Carla eight times, six times in the head. Carla died instantly. She had been a traficante, a crack dealer, but had kept it a secret from those around her. Her killers were members of a gang from a neighbouring favela. The Ex-Girlfriend tells me she is now in hiding - while she has never been involved in selling drugs, being seen with Carla makes her a target. Carla was buried the day after. Her family banned her friends from coming to the funeral, blaming them for their daughter’s involvement in selling drugs and therefore her death.
I stand in the street, the phone pressed against my ear. I listen to The Ex-Girlfriend’s voice, weary and hidden and true. She is talking, talking, until her voice grows so small that I can no longer hear it, and then it fades like a small, withering flower. And I, of course, have nothing to say, for what could I say?