Fate and Longing in Lisbon
©2020 by V M Karren, Fly-By-Night Press
Release: May 29, 2020 on Amazon.
‘Fate and Longing in Lisbon’ is a new, short Romantic Comedy set in Portugal. Read the excerpts below to get a feel for the book.
Chapter 1: Afonso
There was simply no other soul in the crowded, hillside neighborhood of Alfama, and perhaps in all of greater Lisbon, who loved his vocation and calling in life more than the postman Afonso Riqués. If the truth be told, Afonso would not have known what to do with himself if he could no longer deliver the mail up and down the riverside bluff where he had been born and raised. Even at thirty-nine years old he preferred to stay in Lisbon and did not travel much. He was happiest pacing through the labyrinths of the twisting, medieval alleyways and climbing the seemingly unending staircases that stretched out of sight, up the steep terraces of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood. Afonso found his peace among the colorful, tiled facades of his neighbors’ tiny homes. His heart pounded with pride when he passed the boats moored on the waterfront of the Tejo River, that heralded back to Portugal’s golden age of discovery when it ruled the seven seas. In the cramped, intimate taverns and public squares of Alfama, Afonso met his friends and neighbors every Friday evening, after the week’s mail had been delivered, to celebrate being Portuguese through food, wine and the sweet, lyrical melancholy that is Fado music.
For the last twenty years and eleven months, there had not been a single complaint regarding misdelivered or late mail. On the contrary, the manager of the local post office on Rua da Santa Justa received, with some predictable regularity, postcards in the handwriting of both young and old, expressing thanks to Afonso for ‘acts of chivalry’ uncommon in modern public service. In the last year alone, Afonso had received recognition for the safe return of a lost kitten, who had even lost its collar. Another had expressed great relief for Afonso’s ‘intuitive discretion’ regarding the delivery of a ‘specific piece of mail’ only after he knew that ‘the lady of the house’ was away to her mother’s. He had even installed a pulley system to hoist mail to the third-floor balcony of an older woman who had, on a particularly rainy November morning, broken her hip after falling on the slippery staircase of Travessa da Madalena.
On occasion the pharmacist of Santa Justa, whose apothecary was next door to the post office, would pop-in to ask Afonso to deliver an urgent prescription to an elderly man who lived on Costa do Castelo; a notoriously steep and winding street in the shadow of the castle’s ramparts. (It is said, in the unofficial history of the neighborhood, that would-be Spanish conquerors in the fourteenth century called off their attempt to sack Saint Jorge’s Castle as they climbed the hill that is now Costa do Castelo.) Upon summiting the long staircase at the top of Rua de Achada, Afonso delivered the medicines to the hilltop hermit with a smile and a cheerful greeting, pausing only briefly to catch his breath.
In short, Afonso was considered to be the best postman in all of Portugal by all he served. They contended that never in the thousand-year history or their country had any civil servant cared better for his constituents than the beloved ‘Postman of Alfama’. One can imagine then the shock and stress caused by the offhand remark of Afonso’s boss, Carlos Cabrilho, at the end of an unusually slow work week that ended with the words, “…so we just may have to let you go.”
Afonso’s thin, clean-shaven face took on the expression of a tortured gargoyle, terrified by the careless words of his supervisor. Unable to speak or swallow, Afonso managed only a sickly gurgle of a protest from the back of his throat. Carlos Cabrilho was not in any mood to negotiate.
“Don’t pretend to be surprised, Afonso. The young people these days—they don’t send letters and photographs to Grandmama anymore. It’s all ‘emails’ and ‘selfies.’” A blackened cigar stub, clenched in Carlos Cabrilho’s teeth, bobbed and twirled under his bushy yellow tipped moustache.
Afonso, in a state of partial paralysis, managed only to gurgle a bit louder than before while his eyes followed the agitated flailing of his boss’s short, stumpy limbs as he paced around the sorting room.
“When was the last time you delivered a picture postcard from anywhere in the world?” Carlos Cabrilho asked jabbing his finger in Afonso’s chest.
“Three weeks ago, to Senhora Andrada on Rua do Vigario.”
“Okay, fine, but since the Christmas cards all got delivered in the week before Christmas, our piece counts have dropped off a cliff.” Carlos Cabrilho yanked a clipboard from its hook on the wall and drilled his fat, stubby finger into it. “You see, the numbers don’t lie. You’ve been as good as empty all week. Seventeen deliveries. Seventeen! That’s it.”
“January is always slow.”
“And gets slower every year, and this year is no different. Listen, the Postmaster has ordered me to combine some routes, and cut some out. If your numbers don’t pick up by February, well, I’m sorry.”
Afonso’s thighs shook and his knees wobbled as if he stood facing a firing squad. His lower lips began to quiver.
Carlos Cabrilho’s wife, if asked, would tell anyone in no uncertain terms and without blushing, that her husband is, without any doubt, the least perceptive man in all of Christendom. So, it should come as no surprise to us that despite Afonso’s growing anxiety and the look of utter panic on his face that Carlos Cabrilho would toss his shell-shocked postman a bouquet of keys and ask him to ‘lock up for the weekend’ when he was finished with his work.
“I gotta beat the Friday traffic or I’ll be late for the kickoff,” Carlos Cabrilho said waving goodbye.
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Chapter 2: João
The tradition of drinks and live Fado music in the historic tavern called A Tasca do João at the end of the work week was usually a joyful ritual for Afonso and those from the old neighborhood who still lived within walking distance of Alfama. Framed photographs of famous singers both then and now who had performed in the tavern, covered every square centimeter of the stone walls. A round-bellied Portuguese guitar, suspended from rubber brackets bored into the wall, hung over two folding chairs that were sandwiched between the dining tables and benches. The low ceiling, the narrow hall and dim lights intensified the cramped atmosphere of the tavern that was only large enough to comfortably accommodate about half of those who visited every Friday night.
All those who had packed into the tavern that night knew immediately, before hearing any tavern gossip, that Afonso was not himself. He sat slumped over a short-stemmed glass filled with Port but lacked neither the appetite nor strength to lift it to his dry lips. Encouraging remarks and warm hands on his shoulder did little to comfort his distressed thoughts. João, the current proprietor of the tavernand Afonso’s oldest and closest friend, stood over him, holding a platter of empty glasses, appealing to his friend’s usually optimistic nature.
“Come on, friend, it’s Friday night. Drink up. It’s just a job.”
“There are no other jobs in the neighborhood for me, and I wouldn’t do well at the fish cannery working inside all day. Can you imagine me working a night shift?”
“You could come work here, for me, if Carlos Cabrilho is serious about letting you go.”
“Thanks, but I know things are tough for you as it is, and I have to earn enough to pay my half of the rent for the house. You know my mother.”
“Who is spreading rumors about me?” João put the tray of rattling glasses down on Afonso’s small table, “Did Madalena tell you about our money problems?”
“No. She never would do that behind your back.” Afonso looked around cautiously and said quietly. “I noticed you’ve been putting water in the Port for the past few weeks.” Afonso picked up his glass and swirled the faded burgundy wine twice around the goblet and set it down again.
João glanced over both shoulders and bent low over the table. “How long have you known?”
“Don’t worry about it. You know I come for the Fado singing.”
“Do you think they know?” João motioned over his shoulder to the pack of regulars standing toe to toe around the bar.
“I haven’t heard anybody mention it.”
João snatched up his tray, lifting it high above the heads of his patrons, as he twirled, and side stepped in front of and around the elbows and bellies blocking his path to the kitchen. He smiled and glanced at empty glasses as he danced passed them, asking if anybody needed a refill.
The crowd swelled in anticipation of the nine o’clock performance. Two guitarists warmed up their instruments with their ears tipped towards the floor and their fingers nimbly twisting a jumble of tuning pegs. A fadista, dressed in a black flowing dress, greeted and chatted with acquaintances from the neighborhood, exchanging kisses on cheeks and warm embraces.
João sat down across from his glum-faced friend, “Can you keep a secret?”
Afonso nodded with disinterest.
“I have a new singer starting in a few weeks. She’s new on the Fado circuit and inexpensive to book, but she’s good. I heard her sing last week. She has a sweet voice. I hope that she will pull in some more tourists on the weekday evenings.”
“I was going to ask you about that.” Afonso’s face perked up, “I saw your poster on the bulletin boards when I was delivering the mail. She is very pretty.” Afonso finally smiled.
“That can’t do any harm, eh? A good fadista who is also easy on the eyes.” João leaned back in his chair. “If it works, I’ll need help waiting tables all week long.”
“You know this crowd won’t come for a novice singer. This tavern has a history!” Afonso looked concerned. “They will chase her right out if she’s no good, if they show up at all.”
João shook his head, “This new girl, Amalia, will only sing during the weeknights for the tourists who don’t know the difference between good and bad Fado. Those cruise boats that dock down on the quay now, they bring in some rich cats. Hundreds of ‘em at a time. American and Japanese retirees.” João rubbed his thumb on the tips of his fingers, “You can get away with charging just about anything and they’ll shake your hand when they leave. Can you imagine?”
“People are smarter than that.” Afonso shook his head side to side.
“Honest to God. St. Antonio strike me down if I am lying,” João put his hand over his heart, “I witnessed it myself down the street a few nights ago at Jaime’s place. They resurrected an old hag who can’t hold a note anymore.” João’s eyes rolled high in their sockets, “but she’s got that old-time flare. She knows all the old songs.”
Afonso shrugged his shoulders, “Sometimes it’s the song and not the singer that still gets me.”
“And get this, the old man playing the Portuguese guitar for her…he was rubbing warming cream on his fat fingers—”
“Sounds awful.” Afonso covered his face with his hands.
“The food was even worse than the singing. The wine was from the supermarket. It came in a bag, or a box, or something like that.”
“No!” Afonso nearly stood up from his seat in shock and disgust.
“Yep. They poured it into decanters and set them on the tables to disguise it. The foreigners paid eighty euros for dinner and a lousy Fado show, and then they thanked Jaime as they were leaving. They even took selfies with the old tone-deaf woman he had singing there.”
“Ugh! Selfies.” Afonso tipped his glass high and swallowed the wine as if it was a shot of exotic Mexican elixir. “Pour me another one. I’m going to drink until it hurts.”
João returned from the bar with a fresh glass of wine for Afonso as the lights in the bar dimmed and the spotlight trained on the ready performers. Warm applause splashed over the walls and the floor. Through the receding tide of cheerful conversations, the strum of a low chord called for silence and concentration from the spectators.
The nimble pizzicato on the Portuguese guitar’s thinnest strings stirred deep expectations of emotion, like tiny summer raindrops, as it echoed its Spanish cousin several octaves higher. A strong, velvety alto joined the paired guitars and wept a broken-hearted poem for all to share—starting low, peaking high, and swelling like the stormy sea. When her breath finally gave out on that last, long soulful note, a sweet, melancholic spell, of heartbreak and longing, hung in the rafters of the old tavern. Tears were quickly blinked from wistful eyes in the split second before applause roared through the room. Afonso was on his feet calling for more.
For another half-hour, Afonso forgot his problems, abandoning himself to the tragedy and celebration of the Portuguese experience put to music. If the house wine had not been watered down, he very well may have forgotten about his problems altogether until at least Monday morning. But as the evening broke up, Afonso, tipsy but not drunk, gave his friend a warm hug and thanked him for his attempts to comfort him, but was still convinced that his fate was already sealed.
“I’ll end up sweeping the street I live on. I just know it.”
“Look, if it really is that worrying for you, why don’t you take your mother’s advice?”
“What? Find a rich woman to marry?”
“No. Go to the church to pray.”
“The only reason my mother goes to church is to pray that I find a wife. But I won’t marry any girl who won’t live in Alfama. And everybody knows that the good girls, like your Madalena, don’t want to stay in Alfama.”
“You can’t expect the women to tromp up and down these steep streets and stairs carrying kids and groceries. A woman needs some creature comforts.”
“I won’t marry a girl who is not happy to live in Alfama until the day we die.”
“It’s no wonder your mother goes each week to Fatima to pray.”
“So, all wise João, should I be praying to find a wife, or to keep my job?”
“A prayer at São Vicente’s on Sunday morning for both couldn’t do you any harm. That’s all I’m saying. A man has to make his own decisions.”
“Yes, a man has to make his own decisions,” Afonso echoed as he stumbled backwards off the threshold into the alley that is Rua São Pedro, to navigate his way home by the light of the stars.
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Chapter 3: The Bishop of Lisbon
Discounting João’s casual advice about matters as weighty as divine intervention, Afonso figured that a lazy saunter across the street to São Vicente’s on Sunday morning simply wouldn’t be enough, considering the importance of the matter before him, and decided to walk the extra distance to the medieval Cathedral of Lisbon. Not to the discredit of any man of the church, let alone the good pastor of São Vicente’s who had done much good work for the poor workers and widows in his parish, but Afonso figured that the nervous eucharist of a junior priest didn’t seem persuasive enough to remedy the existential crisis that had gripped his soul that weekend. He was convinced that the deep, silky baritone of the Bishop of Lisbon was needed to attract God’s undivided attention to his predicament.
Up at first light, Afonso combed down his thinning hair, polished his shoes, and snuck out of the apartment in time for the nine o’clock service. Out of an abundance of caution for his mother’s well-publicized heart murmur, he chose to attend the early morning mass. He wanted to avoid any hint of a scandal that could be caused by him emerging, wholly unexpectedly, from the confessional before the start of the well-attended mid-day mass. Some people in the neighborhood, especially his mother’s friends, always assumed the worst of repentant sinners, gossiping and speculating non-stop about them for the next seven days.
It had been twenty years since Afonso had stepped inside the Cathedral. The dark, rounded portal, set into the austere façade and squared fortress-towers, gaped after him as he gazed on it in the morning sunshine, doubting his resolve. The traumatic memories of an empty casket and his weeping grandmother always gave him reason to follow the electric streetcar’s rails up the steep hill behind the church, rather than climb the shallow steps in front of it and go inside. After his father’s funeral, Afonso had let the most insignificant of sniffles, or the least anticipated football match on the television in the tavern, keep him from going to mass with his newly widowed mother. After several years of avoidance, his conscience stopped nagging at him and his mother stopped asking, leaving him to his own devices on Sunday afternoons.
Standing once again in front of the sun-bleached facade of the Cathedral in his pressed slacks and shiny shoes, a twinge of panic passed through him when he saw a beggar blocking the entrance. He searched through his pockets, found a few loose coins and pressed them into the old woman’s hungry palm as he quickly stepped over her.
Much to Afonso’s relief, there were only a handful of parishioners sprinkled across the rows of stiff pews in the high, dark nave. A sticky cloud of incense and the rumbling of the organ filled the empty church. The service was ready to begin.
When the plump deacons came through the church taking up the collection, Afonso found that he had no money left in his pockets. He tried to explain that his last coins had gone to the beggar woman outside, but his excuses fell on unsympathetic and disapproving ears.
In front of the box of prayer candles, Afonso searched his pockets again for anything to drop into the coin box to avoid more scowls and whisperings among the clergy who were standing nearby. Finding nothing but his housekeys, which he couldn’t do without, he decided in his own quasi-blasphemous reasoning that “If I was God, I would prefer a real prayer over another stupid candle anyway”. He knelt in an alcove just to side of the high alter and prayed like he had never prayed before. Twenty minutes passed before Afonso opened his eyes again.
“Afonso? Is that you?”
Afonso squinted at the face of the portly old man in purple robes standing over him.
“It is you!” Bishop Rodrigues smiled briefly before a look of concern flashed across his brow. “Is your mother unwell?”
“My mother is in good health, but please don’t tell her you saw me here today.”
“What has you so agitated, my son?”
“I needed to talk to God.”
“You’re in the right place for that.”
“But I really need him to listen this time. I can talk all I want, but he doesn’t usually listen.”
“What’s troubling your soul?”
“I might lose my job, or worse, be assigned to deliver packages in a van.”
“Oh my. The neighborhood would be up in arms. There would be a mutiny!”
“Yes. You see my problem. There will be chaos. There is nobody else in all of Lisbon who knows Alfama like I do. People won’t get their medicines and other important deliveries on time.”
Afonso stood up slowly, one leg at a time, to give each one enough time to regain feeling, “I’m afraid God won’t remember me.”
The bishop gave Afonso a searching, almost suspicious look with narrowing eyes. “Didn’t your mother tell you about the miracle of your baptism?”
“She hasn’t told you?” The old man’s face betrayed his disapproval.
“Told me what?”
“That you were born blind.”
“Who, me?” Afonso stumbled a half-step backwards.
“Your mother was distraught—hysterical. She blamed your father because of his cursing and smoking. But he was no different from the other fishermen and sailors that darkened the doors of this church.”
Afonso shook his head with doubt and suspicion. “This is news to me.”
“She promised God that if you received your sight, she would not let you become a sailor, and that she would bring you to mass every Sunday until you came of age.”
“So, what happened?”
“Just before your baptism, when your mother passed you to me, you slipped right out of my arms. I dropped you right into the baptismal font.” The bishop pantomimed his surprise. “You just slipped out of my hands into the holy water. That had never happened before, and it has never happened since.”
Afonso was struck dumb.
“When I finally dried your face off with my stole, it was obvious that you could see, and you smiled at your mother for the first time. It was the miracle that she had been praying for and when the news got to Rome, well, they promoted me to bishop.” The bishop smiled at the memory.
“Do you think you can pray for another miracle so that I can keep my job and stay in the neighborhood?”
“We can do better than that, but we will need some holy water. Follow me.”
The bishop’s robes flowed behind him as he moved deftly around the drifting packs of curious tourists posing for photographs under the church’s rose window. Reaching the dark, western end of the nave, the old priest pulled an iron hoop with three large iron keys attached to it from a pocket hidden in the pleats of his garb. The iron grate that guarded the baptistry creaked on its hinges as it swung open.
“We don’t get to use this much anymore.”
The bishop squeezed himself into the relief in the wall, lifted the cover of the marble basin and reached his hand in. He signaled for Afonso to move closer. With water dripping between his fingers, the bishop lifted his hand to Afonso’s face and anointed his eyes with the benediction, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” Water ran down Afonso’s face, spotting his shirt and necktie.
“Are you trying to drown me again, Father?” Afonso sputtered.
The bishop replaced the basin’s cover, then removed his stole and handed it to Afonso to dry his face. “I bless you my son, that God will show you, through your own eyes, the answers to your problems. Now, go in peace.”
Afonso sauntered through the quiet, winding alleyways and staircases, thinking deeply about the morning’s revelation and his rebaptism. He turned his collar up to deflect a cold January wind zipping through the labyrinth of Lisbon’s urban canyons onto the nape of his bare neck and his wet collar.
When he reached the corner of Rua São Tomé, he stopped to gaze at one of the posters that João had hung up on a community bulletin board, announcing the new singer, Amalia. As he gazed on her sweet smile and eyes, he was startled by an odd but distinct sensation that the poster was looking back at him. The eyes in the photograph glowed with a light blue hue, making his red-blooded heart flutter. While his rational brain told him he was being foolish for lingering and longing for the attention of a beautiful fadista, his heart began to leap and pound inside his ribcage. Startled by his own reaction he broke eye contact with the beautiful Amalia but couldn’t bring himself to turn away. He glanced up and down the bulletin board, looking only quickly again at Amalia’s glowing eyes as he pretended to read the other flyers pasted to the wall.
As Afonso purveyed the board of advertisements promoting everything from discount luxury cruises to Morocco; funeral insurance; mail order supplements for hair, nails and skin; English lessons; double paned glass windows; and invitations to ‘get rich quick’, each flyer lit up, one by one, just like Amalia’s eyes, with a soft, inviting heavenly illumination.
Hypnotized, Afonso tore the advertisements from the wall, one by one, folded them carefully, and stuffed them in the pockets of his trousers. Then, without any excitement or urgency, Afonso walked to the general store on the corner of Rua Escolas Gerais, near his home, where he purchased a package of two hundred-fifty envelopes with a serene smile on his face,
The proprietor watched Afonso with suspicion, “Going to write a few letters, Afonso?”
“Need to keep the post office in business.”
Afonso scanned the store, watching patiently for the heavenly illumination to fall on a newspaper or, he hoped, on the stack of lottery tickets next to the cash register.
“Will you need stationary, or maybe postage stamps for all those envelopes?”
“A pen! I will need a good pen.”
Afonso closed himself up in his bedroom on Sunday afternoon, drawing the curtains tight, blocking out the winter sunshine and the prying eyes of the housekeeper in the rectory across the street. By the light of an antique desk lamp, Afonso addressed one envelope after another to the postbox numbers on the flyers he had taken from the bulletin board. Once all two hundred-fifty envelopes were completed, Afonso added return addresses and names that he had memorized after twenty years of delivering the mail, of those who he thought might like, or even need, one or the other of the various free samples, subscriptions or information packets being offered. The last envelope was licked closed, just as the twin bell towers of São Vicente’s struck five o’clock.
Dressed in his official uniform and his thick-soled walking shoes, Afonso slung his letter satchel over his head to hang from his right shoulder. In the bottom of his shiny leather bag, he found Carlos Cabrilho’s keys to the post office and slipped them into the fleece-lined pocket of his coat. He loaded the bag with the self-addressed envelopes, careful not to crease or bend any of the corners. His mother, Maria, in a television-induced Sunday afternoon coma, did not hear him on the stairs, and did not twitch at the clapping of the lock as it spun twice in its cylinder as Afonso left the house.
When Afonso arrived at the post office on Rua da Santa Justa, it was dark and deserted as he and every customer knew it would be on a Sunday evening. Just as he had let himself out on Friday evening with Carlos Cabrilho’s keys, Afonso let himself in again through the same service entrance. Locking the door again behind him, he tip-toed carefully through the dark to the sorting room.
By the narrow beam of a penlight clenched between his molars, Afonso loaded the feed of the sorting machine with handfuls of empty envelopes from his satchel, and set the date of the postmark for two days earlier; a Sunday postmark would be suspect to any postal inspector in the central sorting center and would certainly result in an inspection.
Afonso flipped the switch that made the machine jiggle and dance as it applied the needed postmarks to each envelope. As the letters were swallowed-up and spit-out the other side, the entire room began to shake. The rattling turned deafening. In the imagination of his mind’s eye Afonso saw guards with batons and guns rushing into the post office, alerted to his presence by the weekend ruckus, to drag him out by his heels and throw him into the post office brig. The urge to run gripped his ribcage. But, as quickly as the shaking and grinding had started, it stopped.
Afonso searched frantically on his hands and knees in the dark for any envelopes that had been spit out on to the floor by the violence of the gyrating contraption. Finding nothing around the ‘out-bins’ or under nearby tables, Afonso switched off the resting machine and tip-toed backwards out of the post office. As he locked the service entrance from the outside, he heaved a deep sigh of relief, confident that at seven o’clock on Monday morning, any evidence of his Sunday night prowling would be whisked away, sorted and delivered all over Portugal by Tuesday morning.
“…and by Thursday morning,” he thought, “I’ll have Carlos Cabrilho off my back. But right now, I need a drink!”