Tuesday, 29 April 2008

There are many places to drink in Boa Vista. There is the Patio Santa Cruz, where you can watch the sun sink behind the old church. There is The Savoy and the bars around Avenida Guararapes. But things in Patio Santa Cruz close early, and sometimes Avenida Guararapes can be a little grubby even for my tastes (which these days lean firmly towards the populist).

In any event, if Guararapes is too wearing and the Patio is closed there is always Praça Maciel Pinheiro.

It is best to sit on the right hand side of the square. From here, with your back to the wall, you can see everything. The cold Antarctica beer comes quickly. I do not know the name of this bar. I do not think it really has a name. I know that upstairs, up a tottering ladder, is the most revolting toilet on the continent.

It is a normal enough night. I sit and read a book, AM Holmes, This Book Will Save Your Life, and the aloneness of its protagonist, the routine insanity of LA, strikes a chord. Not enough of a chord though, for the book talks about the lunacy of over zealous nutritionists, movie stars and spiritual healers in post millennium California.

This, on the other hand, is Recife.

A family of cats have congregated around the table next to me; sometimes they squabble, mostly they are friendly. People feed them scraps. They eat better than the street children sleeping around the fountain.

Across the square are two prostitutes, hugely fat. They hawk their wares in loud squawking voices and are ignored by everyone, including the policeman dozing in his hut next to them.

Eye contact is dangerous here. Eye contact is an invitation. Eye contact can mean enduring the company of a drunk, lonely recifense for the rest of the night. Eye contact can mean death. So you learn to look, for how can you not look, then look away quickly.

I make eye contact, mistakenly, with a balding, overweight man at the next table. He is sweating heavily through his pale blue shirt and has a hearing aid jammed in his ear. He holds my gaze. I inwardly groan. And then he starts to sing, something old, perhaps Chico Buarque, he closes his eyes, he looks down at the ground. He cannot sing, but he cannot entirely not sing either. He serenades us for the next two hours, oblivious to the stares, the occasional withering look, before abruptly standing and wandering off, slope shouldered, lonely, towards Conde Da Boa Vista. And I wonder, to where, to what, is he going now? To a wife, children, a brother, a desolate, empty room?

A little girl, seven or eight, skips back and forth between the tables. She is beautiful, for all Brazilian children are beautiful, though to European eyes she might appear overtly sexualised, with red lipstick and vivid eye shadow, her hair teased up, a short skirt and skimpy top. But she is not a child prostitute, (though such things of course sadly exist), she is simply a child, and her mother calls her over and gives her part of a cheese sandwich. It is one o’clock in the morning.

The barman comes out and gets into a large, gleaming car, perhaps a Chevrolet, perhaps a Toyota, I don’t know for I happily know nothing about cars. He winds down the window and turns on the stereo. Carioca funk fills the square. Not to be outdone, the bar across the street turns on its sound system. Forro battles the funk. It is a cacophony, though I prefer the funk. I try to concentrate on my book.

In front of the small park, the nightly domino game is in full swing. Occasionally tempers flare, voices are raised, personal possessions flung. The worst tempered of the players I will call Carlos. He wears the thickest glasses I have ever seen and mutters continual oaths and curses as he plays. Tonight Carlos is winning, so the square is, for now, at peace.

The night passes. The square is a motley collection of buildings, some old, crumbling, some, like the Bradesco Bank building, gleamingly new. The fountain is yellow and gold and lit up, amazingly unvandalised. Across the street a clutch of palm trees wave in the evening breeze, and great orange clouds drift along the night sky on their way in from the ocean across the cooling earth. Around two a bevy of grubbily robed monks, or nuns, it is hard to tell at first, passes through. They have been saving souls in the drinking dens in Old Recife. More importantly, they have been distributing food to the homeless, the lost, of which there are many. They are astonishingly young, emaciated, shaven headed. As they draw nearer I see they are all women. They chatter eagerly amongst themselves, as though about boys, as though on a Saturday afternoon shopping trip. I stare, fascinated, for their lives are unimaginable to me.

No-one else pays much attention.

When I say I know almost no-one here it is not entirely true. Before I came out for a drink I went on a date. The girl, Cilene, was pleasant, but insisted we meet and spend our evening in a shopping mall. When I would rather have come here. I do not know if I will see her again. I do not know if there is a middle ground, between shopping mall Brazil and Praça Maciel Pinheiro Brazil. I know other girls here too, girls I have met in bars, in Cadu´s. Absent-mindedly I hope one will call. Perhaps Irany. I tell myself it is a competition between Cilene and Irany. Unfortunately, it is not a competition either seems to have much interest in winning.

Ah well.

Throughout the evening, through the square flow hundreds, probably thousands, of people. They are going from the small houses in the Ilhe do Leite to the main drag of Conde Boa Vista and back again. They do this, probably, because there is little else to do. Families, fathers carrying small children on their shoulders, mothers wearily keeping four or five older children in order. Girls too, of course, there are always girls, gaggles of excited fourteen and fifteen year olds, sixteen year olds insolently staring at the older men watching them pass. They are dressed in tiny shorts and dresses, and midriff bearing, clinging tops. They are all astonishingly beautiful. A boy goes past on a bicycle, his girlfriend perched on the bar in front of him. He is bare chested, handsome, she is wearing the tiniest dress I have ever seen. They are both no more than fifteen, and their plans for the evening, in the way she wraps an arm around his torso, the way his hand rests on her thigh, are clear. I stare, for how can you not stare, and they stare back, chewing gum. I smile, and they smile in response. Further up, men sleep on pieces of cardboard and hoodlums prowl the streets all around, streets which at night are gloomy and deserted, perilous and sinister. But the square is safe enough, though more because of the crowds, the flow of people, than the dubious presence of the police post.

The street children, ragged vultures, flap around the fountain, coloured plastic bottles of glue, as bright as precious stones, clamped to their mouths. They scatter past, shouting, running hard, someone has come after them. They know how utterly, utterly disposable they are, have seen their friends beaten to death with clubs, shot, run down by speeding cars. Mostly for no real reason.

They know that if the people here had to choose life or death for the cats or for them, many would choose it for the cats.

At around three o’clock I have had enough. It is enough for anyone, for it is exhausting, all this thinking, all this watching.

I pay up and cut across the square, eyes peeled for trouble, for a menacing shadow watching me go. But there is no-one, I am as alone as one of Dostoevsky’s heroes on a snowy street in St. Petersburg. I see a figure up ahead, about my height, my build. If I hurry, I can catch him. Perhaps he will walk up the stairs of my apartment building ahead of me, perhaps he will disappear into my flat before me. My Double, at least, would be some company.

Written November 2007, BEG (Before The Ex-Girlfriend)

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