Sunday, 20 February 2011


The second part of the short story 'Ocean' follows. Part one can be found below. Obviously if you plan to read part two it would be a reasonable idea to read part one first.

Paolo Two has a girlfriend. Or should I say another girlfriend, besides me? Or am I not a girlfriend, not really? What would he call me? Does Paolo Two get to define how things are, or are there hard and fast rules? The girlfriend, the other girlfriend, lives here too. Paolo Two and the girlfriend have separate rooms, and sometimes he will sneak into the girlfriend’s room when it is late and everyone else is asleep. He sneaks into the girlfriend’s room more often, I think, than he sneaks into my room. I like to assume he does this out of obligation to their relationship status, rather than from preference. Though if you assume something because you want it to be true, can you really say you assume?

In some ways Paolo Two is not the point of the story, not at all.

It is just that he is the same as my husband and the same as me and the same as everyone.

My husband and I lived not here but there, in a city two-thousand-two-hundred kilometres away. After my husband moved out and then moved back in we decided to do more things together as a couple.

One of these things was to attend Portuguese classes. Before, my husband had learnt faster than me because some days he spoke to people, in the street or at work, whereas I never spoke to people, ever. Apparently, the speaking to people part makes a difference when you are learning a language.

My husband moved out because I slept with someone also called Paolo, who is now Paolo One though at the time he was just Paolo, because at the time there was no Paolo Two. The sleeping with Paolo One was not my fault. I only slept with Paolo One because my husband did not speak to me enough and when he came home from work and asked me if I wanted to go out I would say where and he would say I don’t know, nowhere special, just out.

And I thought, at the time, I came twelve thousand kilometres for this?

So you see it was not all my fault.

It is surprising how easy it is not to speak to people if you do not want to speak to people. Think of all the things you can do, the places you can go, where you do not need to speak. Need to buy food? Go to the supermarket. No speaking necessary. Hungry? Go to a self-service restaurant. Need to go somewhere that is not where you are? Take the bus.

My life was, smile, give money to supermarket or restaurant or bus company representative. Smile again. Pass on.

Not speaking, ever.

My husband did not learn Portuguese as fast as he thought. I smirked when waiters shrugged their shoulders at him as he mumbled our order in restaurants. Because of this most of the time he went to self-service restaurants too.

Your accent is terrible, I told him. Even I can’t understand you, and I’m your wife.
He would rustle his Herald Tribune and look at me with a face like a small boy told it is time to get out of the swimming pool.

Sometimes I felt bad about this, but other times I didn’t.

Here is a long way to come if all you do when you go out is go just out.

Still, after my husband moved back in, and we did things together, like the Portuguese classes, it got better. Though the Portuguese classes were not really that good. There were twenty students in the class and the teacher asked each student to repeat everything she said at least once, sometimes more than once. This took a long time.

The students from other South American countries, who spoke Spanish, were the best students and made everyone else feel stupid.

I asked the word for mosquito.

It was the same word in Portuguese.

In our tests I got fifty five percent and my husband got fifty four percent.

I win, I said, you lose.

In English, of course.

Practice your Portuguese whenever you can, the teacher said. In the street. In the supermarket. I wanted to tell her what I already knew, that nobody says anything in the supermarket.

Go and see Brazilian movies, she said. Practice your Portuguese in bed, she said, winking a lascivious Brazilian wink.

That night I asked my husband if he knew any Portuguese sex words.

No, he said.

None?, I said.

He thought for a while. When he concentrates he opens his mouth and the tip of his tongue becomes visible like a tiny pink shark fin.

None, he said.

He thought for a while longer. The shark fin bobbed up and down.

Piriquita, he said.

I told him I didn’t know what that meant.

The same as boceta, he said.
I knew what that meant.

Do you like my piriquita, I said, shooting for coquettish.

My husband looked uncomfortable, like he had been invited to a party by people whose company he could not stand yet did not wish to proffer an impolite decline of the invitation.

Later, in bed, we made love. I liked it, of course. Who doesn’t like it, even when it is not good?

Even when it is not good it is better than reading Thomas Hardy.

Perhaps if everyone thought like this the world would be a happier place. Perhaps there would be less expectation and less disappointment, less anger related traffic incidents.

My husband did not say any Portuguese words when we made love. He did not say anything at all.

Once I asked him did he ever think about me and Paolo One. No, never, he said, then he slapped me, which I know I should think was wrong of him. Only all I could think was if he had slept with a Brazilian woman, and months afterwards, after I had moved out then moved back in, he had asked me if I ever thought about them together, I would have slapped him too.

Or worse, whatever worse is.

Monday, 14 February 2011


Here, near the ocean, the mosquitoes keep me awake. That and other things. But the mosquitoes are what it is easiest to talk about.

Every few minutes when I think, with an exclamation mark at the end, I cannot take it anymore, I turn on the light and pace the room like a big game hunter. When I find a mosquito I kill it with a newspaper and think, good, now for sleep.

But there are always more of them, they are without end. And soon I hear a whine-sound close to my ear. I do not know what makes the whine-sound, is it the mosquito’s wings beating faster than I can imagine, or is it something else?

Sometimes after I think I have killed all the mosquitoes I hear the whine-sound and I do not know if I am imagining it or if it is real. In this way the mosquitoes, the whine-sound, remind me a lot of love.

In the darkness when the whine-sound grows loudest and I think the mosquito is close to my ear I hit my ear, hard, with the palm of my hand. Most times there is silence after that, only the ringing of my ear in the darkness.

But then the whine-sound starts again, for I almost always miss the mosquito.

Here, which is near the ocean, is the second greenest city in the world, so they say. After Paris. I wonder what Paris thinks about this, to be number one to here, to have pipped here at the post.

It is Sunday night and it is after midnight, a time when no-one who can think of any reason to be happy has an excuse to be awake. It is quiet, apart from the insect noises outside my window and the hum of the fridge and the rush and rattle of the garden. And the mosquitoes.

I do not think I would be able to sleep even if there were no mosquitoes. I have been trying to sleep for too long and my thoughts are tangled up like the bedclothes crowded at my feet.

But maybe it will be better in the morning.

I think I sleep sometime around four. When I wake it is light and already as hot as the sulks and I can hear voices in the kitchen outside my door. One of the voices is Paolo Two’s voice.

Paolo Two and I sleep in different rooms though sometimes he will sneak into my room when it is late and everyone else is asleep.

Two nights ago he snuck into my room.

I was sleeping but I opened the door when he knocked. Outside in the night sky a quarter moon peeked out behind the ghosts of some clouds. Bats flitted across the swimming pool behind the trees.

Can I come in, Paolo Two said. Are you sleeping.

You can come in, I said, I’m not sleeping, though the light was off and the bed was a turbulent scene.

Paolo Two sat beside me on the bed in just his shorts. I looked at the hair on his chest and on his legs. I sat with my bare knees hugged up tight and looked at him.

We can’t keep doing this, I said to Paolo Two.

I know, he said, then he kissed me and rubbed my bare knees.

Afterwards he peeled our skins apart and went back to his room.

Sometimes I think it is my fault, that I am too accommodating. Though maybe accommodating is too nice a way to say it, as though I am a flight attendant who has held the plane back for late arrivals. Perhaps I should have told Paolo Two, no, not tonight. Told him the plane was already on the runway, already somewhere over the Atlantic. But really, was I going to do that?

Because I like the way hair continues to grow on Paolo Two’s chest and shoulders and back, as though he is still a boy turning into a man. Once I plucked some of the hairs from his back with my tweezers while he slept, amazed all the while he did not wake but slept on, his body heavy, brown, long, beside me on the bed.

Last night he did not sneak into my room.

Extract from the story 'Ocean', included in the collection The Psychological Benefits Of Exercise. Further extracts will be published here on a reasonably regular basis, if anyone wants.

Sunday, 6 February 2011


I wake up on a hot Recife morning and immediately feel, not that I´m a minotaur, but that I owe money to someone, somewhere, and that the someone is talking about me, and saying, that fecker never paid me back the money he owes me. But I can’t remember who it is, only that I feel terribly guilty about it. I finally remember at lunchtime that I owe a real to the fruit and veg woman at Mercado Boa Vista, and by that time I don’t really care anymore because I’m more concerned about what to have with chips for lunch. Though I should probably pay her back and thank her for providing this clunking link into a few words on (dis)honesty.

An ex-denizen of As Republicas writes on a Facebook (whatever that is) page somewhere about losing a cell phone and a wallet in Germany. The phone and wallet were promptly returned. That’s Germany, says the ex-denizen, there of course having been no crime or unpleasantness of any sort in Germany, ever. The accompanying inference, of course, is that were you to lose your cell phone or wallet in Brazil you’d have about as much chance of getting it back as chips have of ever being nicer than macaxeira frita (10 points for spotting the fried potatoes theme to this week’s bletherings).

Because as everyone knows Brazil is a pais de ladrões. Politicians vote themselves massive pay hikes minutes after getting elected and keep the brown envelopes flowing at the same time, police grifters stop and check more cars on Fridays than any other day as they fill their pockets for a weekend’s boozing, and you can’t walk down the street/take the bus/stop your car at traffic lights at night for fear someone will stick a water pistol in your face and demand your I-pod, and then how will you listen to Lady Gaga (or whoever) on the way to work?

All of which is both true and not true – true in the sense that it happens, not true in the sense that it doesn’t happen all the time, which is the impression sometimes people like to give. On Thursday, for example, Recife and half the nordeste was bought to a thrilling standstill at about 23.30 after a CELPE (or somesuch) technician wired a plug wrongly at the national grid. The perfect opportunity to wander the streets and see what Recife looks like in the even darker than normal. And it’s much the same, no city of light this at the best of times, though there’s a kick to be had from the ghouls and spectres that come looming out of the gloom, and here and there a bar lit with candles and car headlights, suspended like a satellite yards above the invisible pavement.

There is a hushed and ghostly feel to the streets, but it´s almost midnight on a Thursday and Boa Vista is still awaiting its 24 hour Starbucks and Japanese restaurants, so there aren’t usually that many people around anyway. So it comes as a great surprise to read in the Diario De Pernambuco the next day that Recife had experienced a madrugada (late night/early morning) of isolation, panic and violence, in which everyone was a hostage to the darkness. Twitter (whatever that is II) carried messages in which recifenses talked of their terror and anguish at being at the mercy of the night. Presumably the writer is not a veteran of foreign campaigns in Mogadishu or the lower rent bits of real estate near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Even better, the paper also devoted their Saturday front page to the same national (or regional) disaster.*

Which leads to another great Brazilian dichotomy, or even more than one. First of all, why is it that most people brought up in hard as nails spots like (no blowing of own trumpet intended) 1980s Belfast or 1990 New York (a Brazilian urban area type 2,245 homicides that year) adopt an ah sure it’s not that bad at all is it sure it’s only a few bombs/sectarian killings/crack addicts with knives, while many Brazilians become as timid as field mice, crying you’re going to take the bus? Are you mad? as though taking the bus in Recife is as good an idea as a member of the Mubarak clan taking a quick constitutional in downtown Cairo any time soon. Your Life Is An Impossibility had always thought that hardship and danger was meant to toughen you up, and not the opposite. Yes, urban violence can reach horrific levels in Recife and Brazil in general, but the vast majority of it affects the favelas and the periferia. Beyond that, in the middler class parts of town, it is not much more than a risk, or possibility, higher than in Berne sure enough, but hardly certain death. Hum.

The other funny thing is the mild schizophrenia that affects many Brazilians when it comes to violence (The V Word) and crime. Because while everyone complains about The V Word and has their personal freedom limited by The V Word, there is, somewhere deep in the soul, a perverse and sneaky pride in being from somewhere with phenomenally high crime rates. It’s the same with scousers (who are, if it need be said, lovely folk). Any accusation that some of Liverpool’s fame for having more than a few light-fingered citizens might be deserved is met with howls of outrage, while at the same time a fat walleted Londoner will be mocked mercilessly for paying over the odds for a pint in a Dale Street pub, or even for being robbed on his way out of said pub. He´s from London, what do you expect, would run the logic, he´s not hard as nails/street smart like we are. Cue cheeky Scouse grin. The same is true in Brazil, and why wouldn’t it be? Your Life Is An Impossibility has long campaigned for Brazil to be recognised as being a lot more like everywhere else than people (including Brazilians) think. The gringo (that word again) or even paulista being politely relieved of his wallet after blundering into the wrong shady alley should, really, have known better, so the thinking goes. YLIA has lost count how many times he has heard a recifense talk about violence and crime and then, with a resigned and embattled but also quite pleased with oneself smile, say, mas é Recife, né, vai fazer o que? It’s Recife, innit, so what do you expect?

Your Life Is An Impossibility knows what he wants to say but suspects he isn’t explaining it very well, so it might be time to take his leave. It’s Sunday morning, after all, and the sun is shining, and no matter that he was once told he could bribe his way through his driving test if he was feeling nervous (the price was uma Guarana, a teeth rotting Brazilian soft drink, which caused no end of confusion before YLIA realised it was slang for a few quid), or that he gets cheap internet access by illegally dividing up one connection amongst six of his neighbours, or that later on he might watch a few of the pirate DVDs he bought in the street on Saturday. Even affairs of the heart can’t escape – long time online dating aficionado Mr X tells of how no-one pays any more on Brazil’s leading luuurve site, but that budding Romeus and Julietas simply create a free profile and craftily use their email address as a nickname, rather than using the paid-for site email system.

YLIA’s frowns sternly upon o jeitinho brasileiro, and thinks everyone should play by the rules. But, and here’s the rub, sometimes it’s just so hard to be good.

* An honourable mention and a scout’s badge for anti-social behaviour must go to the scallywags who created road blocks of burning tires during the blackout (or the not that hard to remember blecaute in Portuguese) and proceeded to rob motorists by the hundred.