We didn’t expect Anna to adopt the role of tour guide but she did anyway and that would have been a lovely idea except for one thing: she didn’t seem to know anything the history of Braga, the place where she had worked for decades.
“This,” said Anna, pointing to the building which bore a prominent sign saying palace, “is the Palace.”
We murmured our appreciation and asked how old it was. There was a brief pause.
“Very old,” said Anna.
We muttered our thanks again for her insight and we walked on to the cathedral. We could tell it was the cathedral because it said Cathedral on a sign outside.
“This,” said Anna with evident pride, “is the cathedral.”
It was our turn to pause as we struggled to form the next question.
“I don’t know anything about it,” said Anna quickly, before we had the chance.
We once again nodded our appreciation of her candour and wisdom and we trooped inside the cloister.
“You have to pay to go into the cathedral,” said Anna defensively, as if searching for reasons to stop us going into the main building and asking questions that she didn’t know the answer to.
“They are very expensive to maintain,” said my brother. I think he was championing Anna’s cause – that of leaving someone’s ignorance unchallenged. Both of us were suitably impressed that anyone could live in a city for so long and know so little about it. That takes real skill.
We didn’t have to pay to go into the little chapels around the courtyard so we popped into a couple of them. Actually, ‘pop’ might be the wrong verb because one of them was so dark that Anna didn’t see the Archbishop lying on the floor and she snagged her foot on the old fellow. Anna teetered and Anna tottered but she just managed to save herself from falling face first into the arms of the supine, alabaster archbishop. Above the old boy’s tomb random boxes of bones jostled and murmured in alarm. It was close call. We displayed too much levity at the narrowly avoided intertwining of limbs and a serious ten year old studying a Latin inscription scolded us with a severe look.
Outside the cathedral we walked past the town hall and turned up to the Santa Bárbara gardens. We stood aside as a delegation of a few hundred farmers bearing banners marched in protest about the scandalously low prices farmers were paid for their produce. Anna recognised some acquaintances from the Communist Party in amongst their ranks and her back straightened in pride and solidarity with the farmers and her moment of teetering in the presence of the Archbishop was forgotten. This was a woman who could stand on her own two feet. We read through one of the leaflets handed out by the protesters and bemoaned the wicked ways of all-powerful supermarket chains and noted the universality of the problem.
The gardens of Santa Bárbara were pretty in their spring clothes and Anna, determined that we didn’t ask her any questions about it or the ancient arch standing at its southern end decided that she needed to take photographs of us against the scenic backdrop. We posed suitably, slightly tight-lipped, perhaps, due to the fact that our collective store of knowledge was now no greater than it had been an hour earlier. Anna did what photographers do and stepped back to get in the full scene. Call it the Archbishop’s revenge if you like (I know that I will) but in the next moment Anna’s heel caught on the surround of the flower bed and before we had time to turn our cameras on her, she had tripped backwards and this time there was nothing to stop her falling. To the accompaniment of hoots of laughter from a couple of old women standing nearby, she toppled quite gracelessly into a bed of pansies. Without doubt it was a most inelegant collapse, with legs and arms flailing amongst the crushed leaves and crimson petals and I am sure I could hear the echo down the ages of an Episcopal laugh. Needless to say the result was when she finally got to click the button our smiles – broad grins even – were quite genuine and heartfelt.
Soon afterwards we took our leave. We didn’t want to burden Anna with any more questions that she couldn’t answer and she, I felt, wanted to leave while she was standing upright, on her own two feet.
I wonder how many Porto people know that there are only two police stations within the VCI which are open to the public. One is in Paraiso and the other in Ribeira. Today, we found ourselves in paradise (someone has redefined the meaning of that word if the inside of that little police house was anything to go by) by walking between two others. They were Cedofeita, now closed permanently, and Praça Col Pacheco, which does not invite the public into its shady interior and which was guarded by a fierce, pockmark-faced officer who ran his hand over his open-holstered gun rather too lovingly for my taste. When we suggested that the police, too, were facing this ‘crisis’ we read about he got red faced and even more angry and said it was not the police in a crisis but the government. Well, fair dos to him, I say, especially as the gun was nearly out of the holster by then.
The fellers at Paraiso were as helpful as they could possibly be. All I actually needed was a bit of paper with Participação on the top and a stamp and an explanation of how I had come to commit a mortal sin and lose a government document. Now I didn’t know that you mustn’t lose a document of this note under any circumstances, though the one I am talking about is a Cartão de Residência, arguably the most useless piece of paper ever issued as I have never, ever used it. Even when I have tried to use it and it has been poo-pooed and horribly rejected by other officials. It is the kind of document that should remain in an envelope in a drawer until such time (ten years later) when you need to renew it. If you do lose it and you don’t report it to the police then the whole bureaucratic machine just grinds to a halt and nothing can go backwards or forwards. This I found out when the whole bureaucratic machine ground to a halt right in front of me, going neither forward nor backward, at the offices of Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras. When this machine stops like this all that can be heard is a deep, echoing silence that stretches to the furthest reaches of the universe. All you are aware of is the incomprehension – the disbelief – of the red-tape pusher to your cardinal sin of not following protocol as laid down in art.º 519/C de Lei 23/2007 de 4 de julho. Hand on heart, I hadn’t read the whole protocol. Well, as the hand is on the heart I might as well admit that I didn’t even know of its existence. So there.
It took over an hour of walking the steeply hilly streets of Porto to find the police station in paradise that would admit us and allow me to report my grievous loss. Once I did manage to gain entry, as I said, they couldn’t have been nicer. Such sunny dispositions from the boys in blue (for they do wear blue here as well as over there). Mind you, I did notice that the officer on the door also had a skin complaint. Do they do this deliberately? Is a ploy to deter people from entering the police station to report lost documents? The other question that popped into my mind was: why is it so small? It’s more like a Toy Town lock-up than one of only two police stations in the city centre. There was just one small room which only had space for one medium sized policemen and one large or two small citizens. That was it (for the public area) for the half of the entire aggrieved population of a major city. I can now see why scar-faced men stand at the door. All but the most desperate walk on by. More than half a dozen bereft citizens a day and they’d become overwhelmed.
We sat on the wooden bench just inside the front door to wait. We didn’t have to wait long but this meant that the bubble-skinned man with the gun could watch us and make the occasional witty remark (which I totally failed to understand each time). The officer who took my details was close cropped, like all his colleagues, but had very large spectacles which made him look like a thin Alan Carr, ‘The Chatty Man’, in uniform, which made my eyes swim and I felt slightly sick (which might have been the lunch I wasn’t having). He deftly typed on the keyboard with two very fast fingers and a whimsical smile on his face, which set off the occasional frown and sigh as he stared as something impenetrable on the screen (probably some reference to art.º 519/C de Lei 23/2007 de 4 de julho). Then a fresh faced copper (straight off the farm, by the look of him) offered to make me a photocopy of another document just so I could have one all to myself. Wasn’t that nice? Of course it was, but not nice enough to want to lose another of the state’s vital documents. I am renting a bank vault for the new, if useless, residência once I get to smudge a print of my index finger onto its inner page in the required manner.
Choosing the right queue dilemma – part 4,516. The supermarket checkout today and I knew I was making a mistake by choosing the line with the fewest number of people waiting. It’s always a sign. But did I listen to myself? Did I heck. I have witnessed some epic faffing in my time – haven’t we all? – but this was a queue of specially gifted faffers, all of them, so i must be one too or else i wouldn’t have stayed. Right? But at least I thought the tough looking woman in front of me would be fine when her turn came, if it ever did. She had a no nonsense haircut, earrings useful as attack weapons and a stare so piercing you could hear masonry crumble if she glanced at the wall. What’s more, she only had twelve things in her basket. Twelve small things. However, in my mind’s eye I could imagine that every single one of those items had lost their bar codes – and that would mean the infernal internal phone and a bit of scurrying on the part of Marta from the padaria and Nuno from the merceiria to find out the prices, not that they do much scurrying hereabouts. No doubt the bar codes had been burned off when she had looked at the prices. But no, I was wrong, the bar codes were all intact (which is more than can be said for the baguette she was buying – she obviously wanted it folded into four to fit into a pocket or something). No, our lady with the laser eyes was on a buying expedition for all her neighbours – or five of them anyway, because she wanted to make six separate purchases to buy these twelve items. Each purchase required the appropriate store card to be found and each payment had to be made from a separate twenty euro note, each located in its separate purse. Of course, our fiery-eyed buyer didn’t actually look for the appropriate purse until the dutifully patient cashier told her the amount. Each time, the woman looked startled, as if the last thing she had expected was to have to pay for anything. Then began the search for the appropriate purse, followed by the careful tucking of the change into its recesses. Naturally, she wanted a proper NIF receipt for each of these transactions so this caused another delay – well, five mini-delays – while she hunted for the appropriate card with the correct number on. Of course, the NIF numbers hadn’t been stored with the relevant purse and money, oh dear me no. At least I got to know which of the purchases was hers as she knew her own number by heart, of course, and I was relieved to learn that the folded baguette was going back to her house.
The whole queueing thing had taken longer than it had taken me to drive the seven kilometres to town, park the car and do my shopping. Still, I wasn’t in a hurry. Back in the car I headed towards home, following the road signs out of town pointing to Fafe – pronounced ‘faff’.
Of course, buying the lime tree was never going to be easy. Given the success of citrus fruit trees in the fields hereabouts plus our proclivity for lime juice, it made sense to have a go at growing our own. It is the obviousness of the deed that contains the seeds of its difficulty: anything that is not worth doing is easy to accomplish, which is probably why the world is filled with so much rubbish; doing something worthwhile is to take a path which meanders through a whole host of unforeseen obstacles. So, though we knew where to buy it and we had folding money to pay for it, it took five attempts over a number of weeks before we acquired the arboreal accoutrement. One of the discoveries on this quest was that planting lime trees are (for want of another expression) the flavour of the month, or perhaps year, and so no sooner had the friendly feller at the market got some in stock than they were all snapped up – he hardly had a chance to unload them from the van. To get ours, then, required advance planning and an early start but even so I only managed to grab the last one off the van by bundling an old lady into a thorny thicket before she had a chance to put her hands on it herself (though I have no idea if she actually wanted a lime tree but she was nearby and I could not take any chances).
Getting the deed done was important not just because we wanted a lime tree but because that damned Black Dog has been pursuing me again. The lack of success in obtaining our own Citrus latifolia was just beginning to haunt me and I could hear the inky hound growling around the corner. Small setbacks had been causing bother and this has been the case ever since the last hospital appointment. Good news, you would think, would brighten up the days, but no. Up until the results of the biopsy there had been a clear date, a focus, a cut-off point visible on that stretch of the road and that had somehow made it much easier to be upbeat and positive and, apart from one relatively brief run-in with aforementioned mutt, I had been feeling very optimistic. Since that day, however, the highway seemed less defined and more uncertain and the doctor’s warnings about unwanted come-back tours and shows had dampened a tendency towards positivism. The secret, as always, was in keeping very busy, but I hadn’t accounted for how I might deal with obstacles and failures. Normally, such things present no problem. I usually see them as being part of the process of moving forward and would normally welcome them as useful learning tools. This time, though, I was plunged into dispiriting gloom by even minor snags and slight hiccups and there has been enough murkiness for the Black Dog to drag me into his kennel from time to time.
So, getting the lime tree home was more than just an exercise in ensuring our future supply of citrus juice. I needed the rest of the week chug ahead with fewer clouds and sunnier spells simply by completing the task. The fact that, after a few days, the lime tree is still sitting in the plastic bag in which it arrived just goes to show that the purpose of the assignment was not entirely motivated by agricultural demands. And, anyway, it is well known that dogs like trees for sniffing and leg-cocking purposes, if nothing else, and so it keeps The Dark One occupied. For now.
Woof, woof. Bad dog. The black hound – let’s call him Winston for the sake of clarity – failed to appear this bright and sunny morning and what a relief that was. He’d been hanging around for a couple of days and hadn’t been at all welcome so it was something of a relief when I woke and found the beast not there. For now, anyway; perhaps – hiding in the shadows or locked in a cupboard somewhere – he is just waiting for his moment to growl behind my back or snap at my ankles. Strange thing is, when I turn to face his yellow eyes straight on, he’s never there. Never to be seen. So how do I know he’s not there? Believe me, I just do, and it’s a relief to discover when he’s not..
On the other hand, I had been a bit concerned before last weekend that I hadn’t been aware of the black dog at all over the past few weeks. Surely that couldn’t be right? Melancholy and measurable levels of glumness were to be expected, weren’t they? Surely it would have been unnatural to proceed in an unbroken, sunny and optimistic mood with no shadows cast and no dark canines snarling from Stygian recesses. In one sense, then, his unwelcome arrival was also something of a relief: a measure of normality and balanced mental health.
I’m normally very fond of dogs, to the point of being quite soft about them, really. I just haven’t learned to live with this one yet. He prevents me from concentrating, stops me from reading, listening, watching, planning; he trips me up when I try to do something positive in an effort to break the uninspiring drudge of the day and gets tangled up in my legs and once I’m down on the floor he drags my mind and my imagination to places I would rather they didn’t go. He wakes me in the middle of the night with his snuffling – which can barely be heard above the distant hooting of the tawny owl – and then keeps me awake by being maliciously silent as I wait in vain for his grumbling in the dark. I can feel his yellow eyes in the dark though I may never see them.
But today he is gone. Cavorting in some unlit meadow somewhere, no doubt. I know he will be back and I know I must prepare for his return. Perhaps I can teach him tricks? I don’t think he should learn to fetch sticks, though, as I fear he would use them to beat me. Perhaps I need, first, to teach him to sit and behave. Good dog. Sit. S-i-i-it. And then I might find the courage to pat his head and later to scratch behind his ears. I would work hard to get him to wag his tail with pleasure. First, though, I must learn to see him, not just feel him, and talk to him rather than be just commanded by him. Afterwards, I will learn to stare straight into his eyes and not be distracted by his teeth.
Uncertain Socks at Daybreak
“The gunmetal mist of dawn leaks subversively into slate-veined dreams and for a while you are not certain if you are awake or asleep, or if you had ever been asleep or if you had ever been awake.
The clouds cling to your hillside eyrie with wraithlike tendrils drifting, prising the hygrometer on the wall from its summer torpor into the province of bone-aching moisture.
Rain bleeds from the earth-hugging clouds while trees, half hidden in the lesser light, leach gloom into the lake which forms under the window. Then, without warning, light breaks through; a patch of blue from above. But you do not look up at the sky; oh no, you observe the reflection in the shimmering pool for you know that to look up would be to risk looking into infinity and beyond.”
These are timid socks – sad socks,even – but we will take all-comers.