Eu quero matar a saudade que quer me matar.
I want to kill this feeling of loss that wants to kill me.
Early one morning, I wake with a start. It seems that I’ve stirred to the sound of someone—a woman—walking past the house, singing. The sound still echoes in my consciousness, though I’m not sure whether I’ve dreamt the singing or not. It seems that, perhaps… yes! It’s happened once before, in the early hours—the death watch, as they call them.
The memory of the singing lingers on. It’s woken me with a fright. It was a lilting and wistful sound—just the snatch of a song. There were words, of a kind, but they weren’t the words of a language of nouns and adjectives. They were the words of some strange, metaphysical vocabulary of the early morning dark.
I think about the singer of the words, and the feeling of eeriness doesn’t dissipate. What kind of woman roams the streets at two or three o’clock in the morning, singing strangely to herself? How often does she wander outside the pretty, dilapidated fences, the tangled gardens of these streets, within a few metres of our front bedroom windows?
I see the two walking on New Town Road. She is probably about 95; he is possibly 70. She is tiny and badly hunched; he, a kind of sideways-lurching figure, with long, fine hair. It is grizzled hair, showing a bald pate. They are always holding hands.
They hold hands to and from the corner shop, where they buy packets of white bread, the plastic packaging imbued with the stink of old takeaway grease. They purchase a small carton of milk for their coffee. Once a week they indulge in three dollars’ worth of soggy chips. The rest of the week they live on tins of curried rice and grey peas.
The first time you see them, you are repelled. Later, at home, you consider that you have never before witnessed such an awful devotion. Of course, he is her son, despite the holding of hands. Anyone can see that.
Where do they live? you wonder, while sitting in the supermarket car park, waiting. You imagine leaking gas, the stink of tomcat on black-and-white lobby tiles, the lingering pong of cheap chop-fat in the air. You imagine cockroaches scuttling across cracked linoleum (the original colours now merged into a brown conglomerate), an out-of-date calendar on the kitchen wall featuring some grey-pebbled holiday port in southern Europe. The lichen-green horse-hair lounge is dampened with a strange stickiness, and there is a velvet-covered brick behind a door.
My daughters tell me that, along Brooker Avenue, where one side of the road has been planted with a green sward and a long row of poplars, there are men in the trees. My daughters tell their girlfriends that they should not walk there. They say the men in the trees work in the cut-price butcheries, and that it would be easy enough for them to get rid of two girls and hide their remains.
There was once, not so long ago, a homeless man who lived under a tree in Elizabeth Street. We see the same sad people again and again. They each have a distinguishing name, bestowed by the girls and their friends. There was once the Dead Man who would collapse in the street, seeming so lifeless and of such a bloodless hue that he did, indeed, appear to be dead to the onlookers who had gathered in a circle around him. Now, there are the Smelly Boy and the Donkey Rooter, and there are the usual ladies with shopping-trolleys or prams filled with plastic bags full of stuff or aged dogs. There are dreadlocked crazy men wearing black beanies, and Africans shuffling on pants so short that their legs appear to be cut off at the knees.
You cannot help but be fascinated by Mr Tippy Toes, with his big, cuboid head (the hair mown short), the big lolloping body with droopy, hanging arms, and that peculiar tiptoe gait that makes him appear to be running downhill on the balls of his feet, on an invisible moving footway. You wonder what kind of life could have caused someone to ambulate in such a manner. Indeed, the streets are full of hunchers and limpers and mumblers, but none are quite so terrifying as those men in the trees.
Every day, Terezhina Guimarães collects a pile of paper from the public toilets at Woolworths. She folds it and adds it to one of the piles in her bedroom. Sometimes she and her son, Jorge, lash out and buy themselves a cup of coffee at the takeaway shop. Terezhina sits at one of the laminex tables then removes from her handbag a banana wrapped in a reused paper napkin, offering half to her son. There are the times when, watching the bus stop outside the coffee shop, she asks her son if she might catch the bus to Cintra, so that she might visit her parents. And every day, a hundred times, she asks if Jorge might organise her passage back to Portugal.
A few years ago, when she broke her wrist, the old lady, Terezhina, was forced to go to the hospital to have it set. On her way from emergency to surgery, she asked the nurse whether she was in heaven or hell, mumbling over the clickety-click of her ancient black rosary beads. The whole time she was in the hospital, her son had gone to visit her every day, and again and again the old lady in the next bed said—The dream did not match the reality, sadly accusing Jorge and his mother. That lady, the one in the next bed, would screech at Jorge when he deigned to knock on the closed door, and would rap ferociously on her over-bed table. Sometimes she accused him of putting on a foreign accent when he said hello to her.
Jorge and his mother had been young together; now, they had come to this. Once, lifetimes ago, she had been a young woman with long dark hair twisted up at the back of her head and green crystals hanging from her ears. She had smelt of good, strong flour, and the comfort of bread was in her skin. Sometimes, in the afternoons, she dozed in the patchy light under the mulberry tree, while he played nearby. Back then her head and her eyes were full of flickering dreams. It seemed that, often, she was far away, visiting some place he couldn’t reach.
The city, so gentle in the night. I leave the curtains agape, and the shadows from the cherry tree shuffle. On a still, hot night the shadows make a design cut out with nail scissors. The gentle lights! they make me feel less alone. They are beacons to remind me that I’m not just adrift on a sea of ink. No matter how much I see them, I’m always surprised by the beauty of the lights. And the gentle, comforting sound of the traffic on the Brooker highway—muted sounds, as though they are not real cars and trucks that I hear, but replicas made from cloth and stuffing. Those sounds remind me, also, that I am not alone in the middle of a two o’clock low tide.
It is always at about two or three o’clock that she wakes. Most nights, the highway is quiet at that hour, but there are times when a furious kind of excitement pervades the city—when distant cars sound dry and frantic, pushing into the quiet and stillness. There are nights when street lights seem feverish and jaundiced, when bathroom lights vaguely illuminate windows normally unlit. You imagine men in pyjamas at kitchen sinks filling glasses with cloudy water, women hovering at the doors of their children’s rooms, listening for their breathing.
And the old men and women cannot settle. They flick through television channels, hoping for something comprehensible, hoping for a movie that is not Danish nihilistic or Iranian without dialogue. They hope for American bungalows, green lawns and over-large family dogs. They make cups of tea and they reach for the comfort of Arnott’s milk arrowroot biscuits, plain and unassuming. And, as they concentrate on re-runs of Parkinson or Gardening Australia, turning the biscuits to a mush in their mouths, they wonder whether they are the only ones awake in the whole damn city.
But it is not on those nights that the old woman longs to leave the confines of her bedroom. No, it is on those other nights, when the world sleeps a narcoleptic sleep; when even the back-yard dogs are mute and comatose. On those nights, a mist of fine droplets settles over the city. The darkness of the night is heavy, weighing down the houses and their inhabitants. On such nights wives dribble into their pillows, men forget to breathe between their snores, and children feel a weight, like a wet sandbag, sitting on their chests.
On such nights the old lady longs to step outside in slippered feet. Having wrapped herself in a moth-eaten black wrap, she carefully opens her bedroom door. She closes it behind her with a soft click.
.The son does not stir. She sees his bulk in the light from the streetlight; she hears his death rattles reverberating. In the small kitchen, the old refrigerator grinds away. A tinny clock ticks on the mantelpiece. It is two forty-five. The front door whines gently. She opens it slowly. Orange signage from the BWS lights up part of the laneway. She chooses to walk on the dark side. She has soon crossed the empty highway and turned up a side-street, and another, so that she is far away from the main road, shuffling past painted picket fences, tilting paling fences, fences shrouded in potato vine and jasmine. Some front windows are so close she can almost touch them. She stops, sometimes, just to listen. Nobody stirs.
The black woollen wrap is covered in fine droplets; her hair feels lank and damp, hanging down her back in a thin plait. Down below, the lights of the city are softened by the moisture in the air. The sound of Terezhina’s slippered footfall is muffled.
She cannot remember where she is going. She is looking for Mamãe and Papae. They live somewhere nearby, in a whitewashed house below a windmill, with a forest of cork trees behind. And there is a huge mulberry tree that you can climb into, to lie along the largest branch and feed on the perfumed fruit until your hands are stained purple, your cotton shift stained purple, and your mouth. And when Mamãe finds you, she sends you to the outside laundry tub with a great wadge of mulberry leaves, so that you might scrub at the stains on your cotton shift with the green juice of the leaves.
—Mamãe! sings the old lady. Mamãe.
The most beautiful varina in all Cintra was her mamãe, with her eyes as dark as mulberries, and skin burnished and polished once a week with a handful of salt and oil. Oh Mamãe! Where is Mamãe? She carries a flat tray of silvery fish on her head, and she sings the haunting fado that brings Papae to tears:
My worn cape has the colour of night;
Herein, I want to be buried when I go to the grave…
As I cannot speak, my cape will tell all the worms
the obscure secrets of my sobbing soul…
I desire that my coffin should have a peculiar form:
the shape of a heart, the shape of a viola…
And Papae! Has anyone seen Papae: short and barrel-chested in his tartan fisherman’s blouse, with trousers rolled up to his knees, his stocking cap over one shoulder?
—Tell me, Terezhina, where have you hidden my tobacco? Where did you put my matches? he would tease, while all the time she would giggle and point to the place in the end of his cap, where the makings were kept.
Is this it? Is this the street where Mamãe and Papae live?
Soon, the old lady is singing one of the old songs as she shuffles along, past trimmed hedges and pretty gardens. She does not sing out loud, the way her mother would have, but gently, the way the droplets of mist sigh gently in the night.
I step out the front door into the dark. A veil of drizzle is hanging over the city. On the front porch, I feel as though I am in a room. The air is still and warm. My arms are bare, as are my feet. I am in a kind of room with no walls—just a cave made from the two cherry trees and the old white rose bushes. I am tempted to stay out in the front garden to feel the tantalising fingertips of damp on my arms, my face.
And the white, white roses. They actually grow in bouquets. You imagine you might cup them in your two hands and graze on them, stuffing the fleshy white petals into your mouth. And beyond—the city lights all smeared by the fine mist of the rain. You see the smearing most profoundly with the yellow lights.
Sometimes I think I could sleep out there, looking out over the lights of the city. From inside my bedroom, in the warmth and dryness of my bed, the sounds of the city are muffled. You hear a few plovers, squaaarking out of the blue. The soft quiet in my bedroom is what is real—the sweet, sweet quiet of solitude.
He was so old now that he could not remember a time when he was young. An only child, he had never mixed well with the other children, even back in Cintra. He barely remembered it. He remembered the smell of the fish catch, and recalled a midnight feast of sardines on skewers cooked over a bonfire. There were aunts and uncles, but he could not recall their faces, and the tiny photographs stuck into the album were so ancient, it seemed that they must have come from another century.
And then there had been another country, another life, and the bullying in the playground and the Sisters rattling their wooden rosary beads as they wielded the cane at boys who were not very clever, who did not take their jumpers off on hot days, who were not red-haired and freckled like the Ryans and the O’Briens, the Flynns and the Gallaghers. The nuns hated boys who came to school smelling of garlic, whose little old grandmothers dressed in black from head to toe, whose homework came to school smirched and crushed, who never put a penny into the Black Sambo money box for the missions.
And after the nuns there were the Brothers—mostly ignorant men, and violent, who despised the lame ducks, the wogs, the fairies and the fatties. When Jorge left school, at the age of twelve, he began work with his father, who had a job on the wharves. And, at last, he was left alone, to work like a navvy, to eat his strong-smelling lunch in silence, to scowl at any workmate who attempted friendship. He had worked on the wharves for several decades, and when his father died, he worked even harder, learning to drive the forklift truck, learning to read enough to get by. And when he injured his back at work, he became a gardener for the houses on the hill.
There had never been any girls. Jorge understood that he frightened them, especially after his hair had begun to fall out on top, leaving a long curtain of crinkled jute around the sides of his head. Anyway, such things as girls and motor cars were not for the likes of him. Jorge was happy with his tiny front garden, his predictable meals and his television programs. Best of all, he liked to watch the quiz shows. One day, he thought, he might go on the television and win enough money to take Mamãe back to Cintra for a holiday. He practised crossing his forearms to say No Deal! and he watched himself in the window, rubbing his thumbs around the tips of his index fingers to say that finally, yes, he would take the money. But the years had gone by, and now Mamãe was too old to travel back home, and he dreaded the day when he would be left all alone.
He is woken by her weightless knocking on the front door. —Let me in, querido! she cries. Let me in! She is wet and bedraggled, and has that purple look in her eyes, as though her irises have been replaced by stones.
—Mamãe! he scolds. Where have you been?
—Make me something hot, amado! she quavers. Tonight I might even go to heaven.
He does not know how it is that she has found her way back. It seems to Jorge that it is the night—the darkness—that has brought her home safe. He sits her down in front of the noisy wall-heater. Even in winter it is their only heating. As the tiny element heats, it fills the room with the stink of burning dust.
—Avό and Avô are dead, old woman! he says. How old do you think they would be? A hundred and twenty-five?
—Ssshhh! she spits. I am still your mother! Get me my beads.
She watches him drag his feet to the bedroom. He is an old man, that son of hers. An old, old man.
She rolls her beads through thumb and index finger. —Avé Maria, cheiade graça, o Senhor é convosco… She lapses into a singsong mumbling, hunched in front of the rattling wall-heater. Her son sits opposite, bent almost double under the weight of his love.
As a gardener for some of the landlords up on the hillside, he had discovered that there were whole worlds up there in those sloping back yards—worlds of vine and creeper, overarching trees, outhouses, clothes lines and clumps of bulbs. He visited each back yard once a month to trim the tiny lawns, clip the hedges, prune the roses and carry away armloads of fallen shreds from the flanks of palm trees. In some back yards there were bare patches where antique pines spread their needles; in others there were burgeoning vines hanging huge, poisonous trumpets. There were big floppy white flowers, like saggy baby bonnets, and small pink ones that wound their way through the whips of creepers. Jorge had barely known the names of any of the plants that he tended, but he knew them—their forms, their habits, their personalities.
Similarly, he had learned things about the tenants of the houses where he worked. He saw things—washing on lines, uncollected mail poking from letterboxes, glimpses through lounge-room windows of coffee mugs, photographs in frames. Sometimes there was even a glimpse of a tenant walking past a window, or the creak of footsteps on carpeted stairs, or even an outline, shattered behind mottled bathroom glass.
The lady knocked at the front door. Terezhina and Jorge sat stock-still, their eyes bulging with surprise. Some minutes passed. There was another knocking. Jorge dragged his feet to the door.
She had been sent by the government, she explained. There had been a referral from the doctor who had set Terezhina’s wrist. She had come to see if she could help. The lady asked questions. How did Mamãe manage the toilet? How did she keep her false teeth clean? How was her memory? Did she know what day it was? Who was the prime minister of Australia? Could she count backwards from one hundred by threes? At first, Jorge and Terezhina were worried about answering the questions, but it was almost as though the lady had hypnotised them, prying into every corner of their lives, exploring things that, before, they had had no words to describe.
—Does your mother ever wander? she asked. Does she seem to forget where she is?
Jorge stood, then, and suggested that the lady leave. His favourite TV show was on in five minutes. Yes, it was called Deal or No Deal.
The next time, it was a policeman who knocked at the front door in the early hours.
—I found her on the overpass! he said. You will have to send her to a home, mate! the policeman advised, shaking his head.
A different woman arrived this time. She had more forms to fill out. She told Jorge things that he did not know—that Mamãe’s brain was full of holes and that, one day, there would probably be more hole than brain. That Mamãe would almost certainly forget who Jorge was. That she might brush her hair with the toilet brush and forget how to drink a glass of water. That she might end up lying, day and night, in a special cradling chair, like a newborn.
Jorge turned to his mother. —Perhaps it is best, he said, rubbing at the grey stubble on his chin.
—You will, at last, have a life of your own! the younger woman smiled. I will help you fill in the forms.
Mamãe said nothing on the way to the home. She mouthed the words of her rosary, clicking the beads and kissing the crucifix, until Jorge thought that he might scream. The Red Cross had sent an elderly man to transport Mamãe and her few cardboard boxes of belongings.
—It will be a great relief for you! the driver nodded… It’s too much of a burden… a man of your age…
Mamãe merely stared straight ahead as Jorge led her by the hand into the foyer. The receptionist was on the phone. A couple of old women sat watching Jorge and his mother. A man in a wheelchair with one leg cut off at the knee let out a loud shriek and sped down the corridor. There was a strong odour of overnight urine and bleach. Someone faraway screamed as though they might have been run over by a train.
—Let me show you round! a new woman volunteered. She was pretty and wore high heels that echoed, clickety-click, clickety-click. This is the secure unit, where your mother will be! she said, tapping at some buttons with numbers written on them. Your mother will be in here.
The room was no smaller than Mamãe’s bedroom at home. There were large windows leading into an empty courtyard. Across the courtyard was another faceless wing of the nursing home.
—You’re lucky, Terezhina, the lady smiled. You can see the tops of the trees from here.
—Look, Mamãe! the tops of the gum trees! Jorge pointed, while Mamãe sat down and crossed her arms and rocked, almost imperceptibly, to her own heartbeat. Then she began to sing.
—What is it that she’s singing? the lady asked. It was a saudade, Jorge explained, and it was a song that the mothers of Portugal sang when they knew they would not see their sons again.
—Jorge, I will leave you now, so that you can go and get your mother’s things. You have made the right decision, she said, touching Jorge’s sleeve briefly.
Jorge waited until the clicketty-click lady had gone. He took Mamãe’s hands and pulled her to her feet. Jorge shuffled down the long corridor while Mamãe, bent almost double, scuffed beside him, her knobbled old hand in his. He pressed the buttons the lady had used: tappety-tap, tappety-tap, the numbers forming the shape of a cross.
He was already bustling Mamãe into the front seat of the Red Cross car, when the receptionist called out to him from the entrance doors. Stiffly, like the old man that he was, Jorge turned towards the receptionist. She smiled encouragingly and held out a hand of invitation. A film of relief passed over her crude features. For a moment the old man stood there, seemingly suspended on a thought, almost as though listening to a voice. Finally he raised both forearms and crossed them triumphantly. —No deal! he nodded, without qualm or hesitation.
Since her trip to the old people’s home, Terezhina has given up roaming the streets alone. The Red Cross man’s son has put an inside lock on both doors, so that she cannot sneak away in the middle of the night. But it seems that Terzhina no longer needs to roam the streets so often in the dark, for, once every week, the Red Cross man arrives to drive the old lady and her son to the wharves. There, Terezhina sits in a faded canvas chair to watch the fishing trawlers where they crowd together, and to savour the stink of the fish that is unloaded in large plastic boxes. And the Red Cross man brings to Terezhina and to Jorge a box of battered fish and scallops and calamari and piping hot chips. The old lady nibbles at them, while Jorge gnaws with his five remaining teeth. The seagulls wait, venturing closer and closer, their throats exposed and begging for scraps. If you asked him, the Red Cross man would say that he did not know what he had done with his weeks, before Jorge and his mother had come along.
However, there are still those nights when Terezhina is so restless that Jorge unlocks the inside bolt on the door, and together the two walk out into the dark streets. —Watch out for a big mulberry tree, Terezhina reminds her son, who is not as young as he used to be. There is a huge mulberry tree out the front. Once you have tasted that purple fruit, amado, you will never forget it!
Night has settled over this, my beautiful city. A Scottish pipe band skirls and drones somewhere. Some curtains swing in a lit window. The mountain is a grey-blue bulk. A trail of slate-coloured smoke clings to its flank. The city sounds busy; the traffic convincingly purposeful. It seems that other, more driven people are still aiming to achieve even more before this day is put to rest. A siren spirals. Voices carry. A plover scolds. The busyness, the noise and the clamour make me happy. The sky is green. A solitary greenish cloud floats, like a barge floating on a vast, flat sea. Two figures move in the faint glow from a window across the road. A dog barks in the distance. Green fades to blue, and the lone cloud, so like a barge, dissipates.