Wednesday, 13 May 2009


Turning winter now, which in Recife means slate grey skies weighed down with rain and occasional bursts of blue gold skies and dizzying sunlight. The temperature tips a little lower than in high summer, but it’s still as warm as socks drying on the radiator. The waves break tipped with white out on the ocean and at night as I step off the bus the air tastes of salt and sharp metallic rain. Uau-uau tired (as everybody knows Brazilian dogs don’t say woof woof but uau-uau) I walk up the hill in the blustery darkness, dreaming only of a cold beer or seven in the garden before bed.

Huddled on a step in front of one of the small white houses sit three men, a rangy black Baiano named Moises who lives in the alley that runs beside the house, Manuel, an eager and bespectacled Recifense, and Manuel’s cousin Marcio. (Manuel is also the husband of the famed donator of food, dogs and subsequent unwanted dog parenting advice, Mother Sururu (see entry dated 9th November 2008). Marcio looks a bit like Marcio Barros, famed centre forward of Santa´s almost but not quite glorious campaign in the Pernambuco State Championship.

Manuel is talking, loud and fast and his voice is cracking with emotion, though when I walk over he stops and looks up at me and smiles.

All good, I ask, which is what you ask here, and Manuel and Marcio and Moises confirm that all is good, and then they ask me if all is good, and I say, yes, all is good.

And then Manuel goes on talking. He leans forward as he does so, and the street lights glint orange on his glasses. He is not wearing a shirt and his chest is covered in thick whorls of black hair.

They killed him, he says, they killed him.

He is talking about his father, and there is not much really that any of us can say.

I watched him die, and there was nothing I could do. Moses lights a cigarette and, looking away towards the ocean, makes soft grunts of agreement.

There is a moment of silence, when we all hang, waiting, and then Manuel is talking again, his voice in the half-darkness now becoming gentler and more resigned, and he is telling us how he became friends with an orderly at the hospital, and how he had asked this orderly, finally, what was happening, if they were treating his father well, or, if, in the creaking Brazilian public health system, a world of endless queues and terrible overcrowding and patients beached and groaning in corridors, but one that functions, just, despite everything, and that needs to function, because it is the only option for millions upon millions of people, his father was being pushed aside, forgotten, treated as already dead.

I’m going to do something I shouldn’t do, the orderly told him, and now Manuel seems to be relishing the intrigue of his story, decorating it with pauses and gestures and turning what in less verbose countries would be a functional two minute narrative into something much grander and more dramatic and even beautiful.

Something that had better not come back on me, you understand? Because I’ve seen the way you care for your father, and Manuel branches up another conversational alley, telling us how he spent day and night at the hospital, and took his father to the bathroom and only called the nurses to administer medicine, because it was his father and he owed his father everything.

So I told him, Manuel says, of course it won’t come back on you, I understand. And he pauses again, for yet further dramatic effect, and then delivers his punch line - then the guy told me, yes, they’re screwing with your father.

And there are other stories then, all interlinked and spinning around and fluid and hard to follow, and while I occasionally lose track of the chattering Portuguese subjunctives and medical terms and Pernambuco slang, it is clear that Manuel, an honest man who works in one of the souvenir shops up on the Alta Da Se, is angry and hurting. There are stories of how the wrong medicine was prescribed, medicine that had put his father into a state of toxic shock, and of disinterested and overworked doctors, and of how no-one would give him a straight answer to a straight question.

Manuel’s face grows dark then, and he tells of how he is going to the hospital tomorrow, and he is going to find his father’s doctor, and how he is going to tell him that he is responsible for the death of his father, and how he doesn’t know what he is going to do after that.

Standing listening in the silence we know Manuel is not going to do anything stupid or criminal, for he is too good a man for that. And anyway in Brazil most stories of bloody revenge arise out of sweaty boy on girl action and hot ‘n’ heavy pawing and mucky touching (sex, in other words), and not the incompetence and brutalities of state organs, which are handled rather with a combination of impotent anger and complaining and finally resignation. And so in the end there is nothing really that anyone can do to help Manuel, only listen and maintain a respectful watch in the gathering night, before all decide, suddenly and with an odd mutual understanding, that it is time to go to bed.

The next day I am walking down the high street with Guinness The Dog. We pass behind a car parked on the pavement at a 90 degree angle to the road. The car starts reversing. Guinness The Dog stops and looks at the car. It’ll stop, I think. It doesn’t. I rap hard on the back window. The car stops. I walk on. I hear shouting from behind. The driver of the car, a gordinho, a porky, gloopily sweating man of 50 or so, is gesticulating furiously. I search my immense bi-lingual vocabulary bank for just the right retort before settling on prick. A few hundred yards up the street, I hear a screech of brakes and the car jumps onto the pavement and skids to a halt in front of me. It’s all a bit Starsky and Hutch.

And then it starts. A good few minutes of tedious outrage and shouting and pretending that a healthy scrap is in the offing (though I doubt Starsky (or is it Hutch) could haul himself out the door let alone the window). In the passenger seat lurks Starsky’s thick-necked son (or, as we’re living in modern times, possibly his life partner), clutching furiously at his door handle as if to say one more word sunshine and I’ll be out there before you can say A Puppy Is For Life Not Just For Christmas.

Thing is I’ve not been in that many intellectual debates ultimately settled by a good smack in the mouth but I’ve been in one or two and I’ve seen a few more, and in my humble experience people who are going to hit you generally hit you pretty soon after the event which made them want to hit you in the first place, and don´t sit around discussing the moral rights and wrongs of said event. So I´m not too worried, especially given Starsky’s tremendous girth and the general air of dutiful dullness that surrounds the son/life partner (though this being Recife there is always the slight possibility someone might pull out a water-pistol or two). So I tell them to find peace in the Lord, my children (or something similar though possibly rather more profane), and ease on down the road.

There’s something very Brazilian male about the whole thing – the machismo, the shouting tantrum, the loss of reason, and something especially Pernambucanan about it too, because Pernambucanans are bravo, and get very het up about things sometimes. That’s alright too, because we all get het up about things, though I’m glad to say I get less het up about things than I used to, maybe because the weather is generally nice all the time and I have enough money for food and a few cold sherberts on a warm night and enough friends to keep me from blowing my brains out and of course The Potential New Light Of My Life (Number 464), who is enough of a bundle of fun to make anyone get less het up about things.

Anyway as always it has become apparent that this has nothing very much to do with anything - only that there was something admirable about Manuel’s silence and grace under pressure in the blowy warmth of the night, and not very much admirable at all in Starsky and Son’s ludicrous huffing and puffing the day after.

2 comments:

e.o. said...

Where is that picture?

James Young said...

somewhere in the Lençóis Maranhenses, if I remember rightly - you´ll no doubt be familiar.....