The bells of Santa Clara’s Church calling people to the ten o’clock Mass woke Matthew up. He opened his eyes and stared vaguely at some distant point in the dark. Things, he considered, were now going really well for him, especially because he did not try anymore to make sense of what had happened two years before. By writing invisibly on her back with his finger he had proposed to her, she had replied yes, they had fallen asleep after making love, but then she never woke up again.
Cerebral aneurysms, the doctor had said. Simply. This is life, he thought, people come and go. Gradually, he forced himself to stand up. The bulb in the bedroom had blown a few weeks earlier, so he had to walk to the corridor in the dark and move his arm through the air until he touched the switch. The harshness of the light made him protect his eyes. He waited, with one hand covering his eyes and the other trembling on the switch, for his eyes to adapt to brightness after hours of obscurity, until finally he let drop his arms.
With his eyes cast down, he walked along the hallway, sometimes loosing his equilibrium and bumping his body against the dusty boxes long ready to be shipped back to London. His friends no longer believed he would ever return from Portugal, and Matthew himself thought about the departure as something that really did not have anything to do with him. It was okay for him to stay where he was. His telephone hardly rang, and when it did, he did not have the will to pick up the receiver. His friends had disappeared a long time ago, and he didn’t look for them anymore. He just let them slip away without feeling any pain, and he realized that actually he was relived to be free of social commitments. People, he thought, delighted themselves with activities and relationships that would invariably lead them to be either frustrated by their own failures or bored by they own successes. Life, lived as he did, with a good punch of distance from things and people, was much
The only person who would come up to his place, now and then, was Haviér. But with him it wasn’t difficult to engage. Haviér would simply appear, at times, suddenly from somewhere, knocking impatiently at Matthew’s door with the only pretension to share with his English friend his latest escapades on the streets of Porto. Haviér did not ask questions, because he was deaf-mute, and Matthew did not even have to pretend he was paying attention to him. Once, Matthew dozed off while Haviér’s long thin hand, after having attached on Matthew’s wall a photograph of the O Cego Rabequista painting, were lecturing on the work of art. When Mathew woke up, Haviér was still there, his hands passionately filling the air with unseen words.
Matthew entered the large living room, threw some dirty t-shirts and socks from the couch onto the floor and lay down on his side. From under his naked shoulder, he grasped a piece of paper on which, after some time, he recognized his own handwriting disfigured by oil and reddish sauce stains. He read it with a mordant smile:
1) have a shower
2) hair cut
3) get rid of full bean bags in the kitchen
4) get rid of cockroaches
5) call th
He shook his head, slowly lowered his arm, and the list slid from his fingers down between the sofa backrest and his leg.
He closed his eyes and tried to think what he had to do. The Harvill Press was impatiently waiting for the new translation into English of José Saramago’s O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo, on which Matthew had supposedly been working for six months, and for which, until last month, he had been paid with regular instalments. The publisher had already written angry letters demanding the complete and final translation. The letters kept coming, and Matthew let them land gently on the wooden floor, where they were destined to remain, buried under junk mail. After all, things were all right if left to go their own way. The thought of sitting at his desk, where Saramago’s book openly displayed its dusty pages, made Matthew feel incredibly tired, and he soon nodded off.
The crying of a child in the flat upstairs woke him abruptly. He stood up and went into the kitchen thinking he might have something to eat. From the fridge, he took some butter and a pot of strawberry jam to spread on some toast. Both the jam and the bread were slightly mildewed on the surface, but it wasn’t a big deal. He immersed his hand in the sink he had filled with water two weeks before and searched for a knife. He had acquired the habit of leaving the dishes permanently submerged in the water in the sink, into which now and then he would drop more soap. He moved his hand slowly in the brownish water, where bits of food lay suspended, and eventually found a knife, which was all he needed to make a sandwich. The child of the flat upstairs was still crying, but he did not mind. He had thought to give to the mother a pair of bootees he had bought when the baby was still in her womb, but then he had abandoned the idea for some reason he could not now remember, and left the baby shoes on the floor. Months had passed and the baby was now a two year old child.
He sat heavily on the first box he found at the entrance of the living room. His legs were weary and, slowly chewing his sandwich, he considered the idea of returning to bed for a couple of hours before starting to translate. He put the half-eaten sandwich on one of the nearby boxes and, for a while, he remained immobile with his arms pulled down between his legs and his eyes staring at the white roof. He was not thinking about anything; he did not even hear the child’s constant crying any longer. Everything around him seemed to be happening as in a movie run in slow-motion, in which he did not feel any need to play a role. Not that he was upset or anything. It just did not matter. He went to his desk and read indolently the next sentence to be translated:
Então Jesus voltou lentamente o rosto para ela e disse, não conheço mulher
He closed the book. He would do what he had to do, at some point, but not now, first he needed a healthy rest in order to be creative enough to dismantle and then to re-assemble another person’s words and thoughts. Matthew lay down on the sofa and opened a local newspaper three months old. He turned the pages looking distractedly at the pictures, taken from different angles, of the Cubo, the rather debatable sculpture by José Rodriguez in Praça da Riberia, until he fell asleep.
Matthew resurfaced from his sleep at the sound of the Church’s bells discharging people from Mass. The light in the room was bright enough for him to look at a stately cockroach resting on the today list. He stared at it for a while, thinking that its life was easy until someone killed it, but even then, it wouldn’t feel much pain. Primitive nervous system. A simple crack and it’s all over. But he did not kill it, because if you kill one then you have to kill all of them, otherwise there’s no point. The flat was full of cockroaches. He decided instead to stand up, carefully so as not to touch the insect, and to go into the bedroom. In the darkness he felt more comfortable and thought that his eyesight, tired by too much reading, would have benefit from it. At peace, he
thought, and, cradled by the warm silence of the room, he felt his head increasingly relieved from worries and his body safe and sound on the wide and stable bed. Yes, everything was fine. The angles of his mouth rose in a farewell smile. Yes. No worries.
Then, moved by God only knows what, with his finger Matthew wrote on the soft surface of the bed sheet the following invisible letters: M-A-R-R-Y-M-E. One by one and well spaced. He waited, once more, for Manuela’s naked body to turn towards him, for her shameless nipples to come into his sight, for her forefinger to trace on his torso Y-E-S. He stayed motionless until his hand dropped flat on the empty side of the bed. He rolled over and sank his face in the pillow, his hand closed in an anxious punch, the sheet powerlessly crumpled in his fingers ravenous for the touch of her skin. Slowly, he curved his back forward and brought up his legs tightly against his chest. He could not feel anything, suspended, as he perceived himself to be, in midair. A hot air
balloon. Then he tasted something on his lips: salty water was descending over his cheeks, and he surrendered to it, burning his face, shattering his chest with sharp fits of a miscarried love.