Lisbon, the old quarter. We were a steep climb above the city, staying in a family-run hotel in a cobbled square with jacaranda trees and yellow wagtails. Jill was at a conference at the university and I’d tagged along for a few days. I wasn’t planning to do much, just mooching about with my camera, catching up with myself.
Largo do Carmo was the square where the revolution ended in nineteen seventy-four. The coup started in the army, then took to the streets. They put flowers in the guns of soldiers. Revolução dos Cravos. The carnation revolution. Almost bloodless. It spread to Africa, stopping the wars in Angola and Mozambique. Just a few carnations and the will to change things. I was still at school, but I remembered it all on the news. Unlike Jill, who seemed to have no recollection of it at all. But then I was two years older than her.
The hotel rooms were spacious and modern. Ours had a glass-faced bathroom with a shower you could see into from the room, unless you pulled down a blind. That was weird. It took us a few minutes to work out how the taps operated. A sign of age, maybe. But the towels were soft and the hot water plentiful and there was a mini-bar and a kettle, tea and coffee. The restaurant looked half-decent and the breakfast was excellent: croissants, fresh yoghurt, crispy bacon, scrambled eggs and little pork sausages. The coffee was good and you could even make toast on one of those heated conveyor belt things, though it took forever, waiting for the transformation.
Opposite the hotel was a shop that sold guitars, mandolins, sheet music and high-gloss pianos. Further along was a boutique selling hand-made shoes, though the fittings were too narrow for me. Then a barracks with a sentry in metal helmet and cuirasse. One day a man, the next a woman. Very fetching in either case. The cafés spilled into the street and at weekends musicians set up little PA systems and serenaded the tourists. We kept remembering that Portuguese wasn’t Spanish. If we slipped into Castilian people looked at us in puzzlement. It reminded me of Jacqui, our daughter. She was learning Mandarin, but when she came home, she got her grammar mixed up. Chinglish, she called it. In Lisbon, most people spoke a bit of English anyway, so it hardly mattered.
We had an evening to recover from the flight and the hassle of airport security and baggage carousels. We were knackered, and Jill had work things to check. Oddly enough, we ended up in a Spanish restaurant a short walk from the hotel. We ate braised rabbit with shallots and drank one of those dark Dao wines, all brambles and jam. Jill’s teeth went purple like that first time she got drunk with me in a wine bar in Liverpool and told me to fuck off. Right out of the blue, as if she’d just recognised me and we had an old grudge. We weren’t sleeping together then. The bar was called The Corkscrew and we drank two bottles of Côte du Rhône, which was going it a bit in those days. We were students living on our grants, making do. When you think of the debt kids get into these days with tuition fees, we were lucky. We didn’t realise we were a blip in history, that working-class kids would never see such days again. When I graduated, I owed the bank thirty-six quid and paid it off in three weeks, working in a factory that made pork pies. I’ve never eaten one since.
The second day of the visit, Jill had a full day at the conference. It was some European network to do with child abuse. Or sex trafficking. I should have known more, but I hadn’t asked too many questions. I’d been pre-occupied with my own meltdown. We’d called by at the university on the way from the airport, just to meet her Portuguese colleagues. Three elegant women: professors in trouser suits and high heels who spent a lot of money on their hair. It was a bit embarrassing with Jill explaining that I wasn’t an academic. It’s hard for some academics to imagine that, like they were born to it. As if there’s nothing else.
The fact I’d just been made redundant was another matter. I was glad, actually, I was fed up with working in advertising. Too much bullshit. Maybe everyone gets there in the end, cynical and jealous of the new generation. I’d specialised in working for what we used to call Third World charities. We ran campaigns on a shoestring, but the company still creamed off a profit. Then those youngsters muscling in, fresh from their college courses, wanting to change everything, talking about the same things in a new language.
The receptionist at the university looked at us sideways when Jill introduced herself, stumbling over the Portuguese names of her colleagues. She picked up the phone to call for help. Of course, the professors all spoke perfect English when they stepped out of the lift, tilting their heads towards us, struggling with our quaint pronunciation.
After breakfast on that first morning, Jill came out from the bathroom shaking her hands to dry her nail varnish, trying to fasten her necklace. For a moment she could have been twenty again, her cheeks flushed from the shower. The necklace was one that Jacqui had brought back for her. Yellow jade set in silver. The clasp was awkward. Jill wasn’t wearing the earrings that matched the necklace. They’d come without fixings and I’d spent ages on the Internet finding hangers and bails, but they’d never been quite right.
Jill flicked back her hair and tilted her glasses. She hadn’t worn those back in the day, though she’d had a pair of sunglasses that we thought were very cool the first time we’d caught the ferry to Caen with our rucksacks and that tiny tent. That was before her PhD and my first job writing adverts for skin products. Which Jill thought was hilarious, but we got by, even when she was pregnant with Jacqui. Looking back, we might even have been happy, but at the time just surviving was enough.
– How do I look?
She sighed a little theatrically.
– What I mean is, do these go together?
She was wearing a dark maroon scooped top and a navy blue suit with flat-heeled shoes. The shoes were silver. So, she was a bit nervous. I kissed her and stroked her shoulders.
– You look great, honestly.
I remembered the three professors on high heels like flamingos. I remembered Max.
– OK, I’ll try to believe you.
– Believe me. You look lovely. Very…professional.
I’d run out of ideas when it came to how she looked. I liked it. The way she looked. Jill grimaced, picked up her briefcase and checked inside.
– OK, got my phone, my laptop, got my purse and the taxi should be on its way. Come down with me?
– OK, just a sec.
I slipped on some shoes and a windcheater.
When we got to the lift, I saw Jill staring at me in the mirror as if she’d never seen me before. I could see my bald patch. When we stepped out a woman in a pink twin-set was pushing in a folded wheelchair. I stopped to give her a hand and got to the door just in time to see Jill getting into a black Mercedes. She wound the window down.
– Be good?
It sounded like a question.
– You too.
She rolled her eyes and put on her glasses, as if not being good was unthinkable. It was an academic conference, after all. I wondered if Max would be there and that’s why she didn’t fancy the conference dinner this time.
It’s funny how you just know things. I didn’t need to check her mobile phone messages or anything like that. I just knew. We’d met at another conference dinner. He was a neat-looking guy with grey hair, grey eyes, one of those linen jackets that academics love. He’d been Jill’s PhD supervisor, back in the day. A professor of Sociology, an expert on something or other I’d forgotten. When he shook my hand his eyes just glanced towards Jill who was leaning against the wall with a glass of prosecco. I just knew. That night we’d driven home in thick silence, our headlights slicing through the dark of country lanes. Jill had reached out to touch my arm, but I couldn’t speak. I never asked how it started or when or how it ended. There was a little owl in the road and when it flew up in the headlights it seemed to stare in at us. We never talked about Max. Not once. Whatever I felt about it, I’d buried somehow, somewhere. The owl had seemed mesmerised, staring at us through the windscreen.
I waved the taxi off and went back to my room to check some emails – I’d put a few irons in the fire with some of the bigger companies, but I didn’t hold out much hope. The wi-fi was superfast. Nothing doing. I sent Jacqui a quick one to say where we were. She was back in Guangzhou working in telecoms. I should have known more about that, too. I was a bit dismayed she’d ended up in that line of work, but I couldn’t have said why exactly. I was proud of Jill and what she did, even the dark side. Or especially that. It was that thing about making a difference that haunted our generation. We’d both tried in different ways. I didn’t have a PhD, of course. I wouldn’t have known where to start.
I took my phone off the charger, packed my camera and slipped my wallet into my camera bag. I’d got until about four o’clock when Jill would be heading back and we’d go out for dinner. She was supposed to be researching that. We were determined to listen to some fado. We’d been to Lisbon a couple of years before and I’d fallen in love with the music, its darkness, its extravagance. Like the wine, there was nothing frivolous about it. I don’t think Jill was as keen as me, she found it all a bit sentimental. She was probably just humouring me because I’d come along when I didn’t have to. There was a good music shop down in the city and the CDs the owner had recommended last time had been spot-on. Amália Rodrigues, Ana Moura, Carminho and Gisela João, along with a couple of anthologies. One of them was an arrangement of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry, the guy with over seventy heteronyms. I liked to listen to them when I was cooking, drinking wine and waiting for Jill to get home, always hours later then me. Thinking of Pessoa slipping from one persona to another. Sometimes I was half-pissed by the time the dinner went on the table.
It was April and there was still a slight chill in the air, so I kept the windcheater. The woman on the desk had clocked me as I left. Being middle-aged had started to make me look and feel like everyone else. I was pretty much indistinguishable from any other middle-aged guy. And I had to be careful in the sun. Still, I’d kept fit and was only a few pounds overweight on that BMI thing we were all supposed to be taking notice of. If you exaggerated your height just a tad, it all worked out fine. I hadn’t actually measured myself in years, so why not?
I walked down the street from the hotel, passing the shoe shop. There was a young woman in a grey scarf seated at the counter, reading a book. It all looked very peaceful. Very expensive. The shoes were tiny, like many of the Portuguese. I wasn’t tempted. I veered right and took a set of steps that led down to the main road. On the left was a fantastic Gothic building that looked as if it had been the original town hall. The railway station was close by and dotted through the city were those trams that took you to the higher streets, hauled along on steel hawsers. Elevadors. The suspension springs were all seized as if they hadn’t been serviced in years. My dad had worked in engineering and believed in maintenance, taking our Hillman Minx to bits every weekend. I could hear him muttering how bloody useless they were. Charming in their way, but probably deadly. I preferred to walk.
I’d been down to the waterfront on that previous visit: same thing, Jill at a conference, me exploring, kicking my heels, trying to keep out of the bars, trying not to log into my work emails. I’d picked up a map from the hotel and, this time, I decided to head across to the opposite side of the city. Lisbon had been pretty much destroyed by an earthquake in seventeen seventy-five and the central section – Chiado and Bairro Alto – had been rebuilt in geometric patterns. But they’d kept out the big international chains and there were lots of little shops and cafés. Curio and millinery shops, stationers and wine merchants. The sorts of places where you could buy sealing wax or antique books. I checked the map, turning to face north, keeping the sun on my right. I was at Marquês de Pombal and the area beyond that around Estefânia looked promising.
I went up a street that slanted back from the main road, climbing steeply. There was a little square with concrete seats and a row of African guys talking and smoking. They were watching a woman in a purple kaftan carrying a baby strapped to her back, trying to stop another little boy from running ahead into the road. They were laughing at her. I remembered Mozambique, Angola. One way or another, they must have lived through those old colonial wars. I wondered what it was like for them here in Lisbon, at the dark heart of the old empire.
The thing with Max had probably ended after that evening. Jill knew that I’d picked up something between them. Maybe something that never even got started. Maybe something that was all in my mind. Or perhaps I wanted her to have an affair because that gave things a bit of excitement, a bit of the passion that ebbs away as you get older. Although passion is about the self, really. Love is about someone else. That’s what I wanted to say to Jill, that I’d kept on loving her because I couldn’t help it. But, mostly, we didn’t say anything.
There was suddenly a lot of graffiti on the buildings and the classy shops selling clothes and handbags were replaced by tiny cafés and grocery shops with produce set out across the pavements, so you had to walk in the road. Trays of dates and oranges, zucchini, tomatoes, avocados. A trickle of soapy water went down the gutter where someone was washing their windows. Some of the houses were beautifully tiled and I took a few shots. I was using a little Fuji camera with a fixed lens. I’d got a Canon with a big zoom, but it stuck out a mile. You could slip the Fuji into your pocket. It was discreet and the images were excellent.
There were some black kids with dreadlocks in a doorway, laughing at me. I’d forgotten my hat and was probably looking a bit pink after that climb. I’d have loved to take a shot of them, but you couldn’t. Sometimes I carried the camera openly and that way you might get asked. I’d got some great shots at a hair-braiding salon when I was in Nairobi. Muzungu, photo me, please! But you had to be careful. Especially these days when images could end up on the Internet.
The kids were gorgeous and full of fun. But, sure enough, their dad appeared to bring them inside. He wore a white singlet and was lean and tough-looking. He gave me a curious look. Not hostile exactly, but What the fuck? all the same. We used to talk about that in the advertising game. That little gap between the pitch the ad made before the audience quite got it. Then puzzlement turned to gratification and they were hooked. With the new-wave ads you hardly knew what they were advertising, except the consumer experience itself. The products were pretty much the same, so it was about the art form, not the product. Or the idea of the product. Or its consumption. It was a different advertising skill alright. Like that glass-walled shower that meant nothing in the end. Voyeurism at best. It was bullshit when most people had so little. Except desire.
Though my job had been to make people feel good about giving. Close-up images of smiling African women and kids, personal stories of salvation, of healing. And if I’m honest, of gratitude. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if that was much better than selling the latest Audi. Whether the moral ground was any higher. If there was any moral ground. But at least there was a human connection, and that seemed worth something at the time.
I moved on, zigzagging through the streets as they rose higher. The elevador went past, painted red like a British fire engine. A row of faces looked back at me. I wiped away a trickle of sweat and took another right turn. Occasionally you’d get a glimpse of the city laid out below. Rectilinear. Beyond that, the wispy clouds beyond the sea. I remembered those equestrian statues, glaring white in the city squares. Portugal might be a small country, but it had a huge imperial ego. It had taken a few bunches of flowers to damp that down. Well, not really. But it was a good story and there were some great photographs from that time. A revolution has to be promoted like everything else and all revolutions have a certain style.
I came to a street where a line of houses had been demolished. There was something new going up, covered in green plastic netting. Next to that, a house with ornate blue and white tiling and a fabulously weathered front door. I crouched down to take a couple of shots. The door opened. There was a woman standing there, slightly built, squinting a little in the sun as if surprised to see me. She had cropped hair and earrings made of peacock feathers that dangled on either side of her face. She was dressed in a white sleeveless blouse and striped skirt. I raised my hand feebly, as if to apologise for intruding. Her slow smile seemed to make time for me.
She said something else. Her voice rose up at the end of the sentence, so I guess it was a question, but I’d used up all my Portuguese. I gestured to the camera.
– Mi scusi.
It wasn’t Portuguese. It probably wasn’t anything. Italian? She looked a bit puzzled and repeated whatever it was she’d said earlier. I shrugged and put a hand to my chest, fingers open in what I hoped was a gesture of repentance. She turned sideways and signalled at me to enter the house. I showed her the flat of my hand, to say, No, that’s ok. But she signed more urgently, wagging her fingers. I followed her in, but my heart was thudding.
The street was bright, the inside of the house startlingly dark. There was a spicy smell. Maybe fenugreek. Maybe cumin, cloves, cardamoms. The windows were grimy on the outside and not quite closed. Their net curtains billowed into the room. There was a settee with a bold tartan pattern and a clothes horse hung with children’s things: little vests that buttoned at the shoulder and miniature socks and trousers.
The woman was leading me into a back room, a kitchen, which had a steel sink with crockery neatly stacked. She was silhouetted against the light that came through tall windows at the back of the house. Her face was almost invisible, apart from a flash of eye gleam. Her dark skin seemed part of the shadows that suffused the room.
The woman went up the stairs ahead of me, stepping lightly in canvas shoes. The stairs were made of wood that had once been varnished, but the gloss had worn away. A ring on her finger clicked against the bannister, her shoulders bunching and relaxing. And I followed her for no reason. What was I even doing here? There was a faint patch of sweat in the small of her back. Again, that faint scent of something. Her bare shoulders gleaming in the light that fell from a skylight. I felt suddenly hot, cold sweat dribbling down my sides, my hand moist against the camera.
The woman stepped from the stairs to the landing and pushed open a door, clucking softly, as if there was a small animal underfoot. She paused in the doorway and smiled back at me, curling her fingers to get me to follow her. I could feel my heart bumping against my ribs. Inside the room she was pulling on a rod to tilt the Venetian blind, allowing more light to slant into the room. There was a double bed with a carved headboard. My mouth had dried out. I half-turned to say something, but there, propped up in the bed was a figure lying back against a stack of pillows. A glass of water stood on a little table and what looked like a bible, the edges of the pages gilded. The sleeper’s eyes opened slowly. It was an old woman. She wore pearl studs in her ears and the skin hung loosely from her forearms. On her wrist was one of those plastic diver’s watches with all sorts of gadgets sticking out. She had no teeth and her lips were crimped inwards, crumpling her face. The younger woman leaned over her to adjust the pillows and turned to me.
I could see the resemblance in the shape of the women’s heads, the finely formed temples, the shape of their eyes. She smiled at me again.
The English took me aback and I was stammering.
The old woman was beautiful in the way that only the very old and the very young can be, her skin exquisitely creased, her irises and pupils dark, merging to the point of invisibility. Her hair still black, apart from a crinkling of white at the temples.
I stepped towards the window and saw a group of schoolchildren in the street below being chivvied by their teacher. He wore a lanyard and a straw hat. Inside the room it was hot and still and the sun made wedges of dust where it penetrated the shutters. The younger woman was pointing to my camera, turning to tug at the blinds to let in more light. She cupped her hands towards the figure in the bed. The old lady was emitting short, hoarse breaths.
– Por favor, senhor?
She pointed to the camera again. The old lady turned her face to me, without expression. It was then I realised that she was dying, that the scent in the house was the sweet scent of someone passing from this life to the next.
I took some shots, nudging the window shutters open a little, taking a couple with the aperture closed down, then some wide open, so that only the old lady’s face was in focus. Then a shot of her hands where they were folded on the white sheet, tangled in a rosary. The colours in the room were muted. It felt almost pornographic to look at her through a lens. The younger woman was pressed into a corner. Although the old lady was looking at me, she seemed to be watching a far distance. A desert traveller or a sailor nearing home, crossing the seam between this life and whatever lay beyond. As I worked, her eyes drooped and her head turned to one side, breath softening as if she was no longer able to make the effort of wakefulness. Her daughter put her hands together at one side of her face to show me she was sleeping now.
Downstairs, I showed her the images on the camera’s live view. The light in the room made the old lady look as if she was floating in space, the texture of her skin like softest leather, her eyes huge and luminous. The woman clapped her hands silently and gave me that brilliant, dimpled smile. She wrote something on a slip of paper and gave it to me, pointing to a folded laptop on the table. She wanted me to email her the files.
– Obrigada, obrigada.
– You’re welcome.
The woman looked at me, puzzled.
– She really is beautiful.
I pointed at the image of her hands folded against the white sheets.
Beautiful and so close to death it was tangible. The Portuguese word had come back and she smiled at me delightedly. There was that smell of fenugreek again as she leaned close, pointing to the email address, then pointing to herself. I wondered about my own smell. Last night’s wine and aftershave, probably. We shook hands and her skin was smooth and cool. I went to the door and she let me into the street, waving goodbye. Smiling as if we were friends parting, the peacock feather earrings vivid against the dark interior of the house.
I walked down from the neighbourhood through patches of shadow and searing sunlight. Near Pombal I found a café and ordered some lunch. It was a local fish served with slices of potato, onion and red pepper. Simple, but delicately cooked with lemon wedges and sprigs of samphire. I stuck to fizzy water with ice instead of wine. The waiters all spoke English, so no problem. I took my camera and scrolled through the images of the old lady, remembering the sweet, cloying stillness in the room. The heat. The tumbling motes of dust in shafts of light. The way her eyes seemed to be looking beyond everything. The way we all have to die but don’t know when.
Back at the hotel I plugged the camera into my MacBook and downloaded the images. I adjusted a couple of the exposures before sending them off in batches to the address I’d been given. Funny, but it felt like a secret, intimate and somehow clandestine. It was four o’clock by the time I’d finished. I checked my mail to find I’d been offered an interview with a firm in Manchester who were interested in my CV. That might do it. I got in the shower and let the hot water stream over me, remembering that I hadn’t worn a hat. I was packing away my camera when Jill came through the door with one of those canvas shoulder-bags they give you at conferences with a notepad and a biro and a bottle of water and a map of the campus. Bullshit, really. Stocking fillers. We must have had dozens of them at home.
– Hiya, how did it go?
– It went…how about you?
– Good, just mooched about really. Nice lunch.
– That’s good.
– Fish in a little café.
– Nice. I need to get under the shower.
She looked awkward. I wondered who else had been there, at the conference. The three professors, obviously. I thought about the images in my camera, on my hard drive.
Jill showered and changed into slacks and halter top. We sat next to each other on the bed and checked the map. I wanted to make love. To reclaim something. Right at that moment. I nuzzled the back of my hand against her breast.
– Hey! we’re going out!
She was smiling, pushing my hand back. Patting it as if I was a child.
– Maybe later…
I kissed the damp hair she’d tucked behind her ear.
– OK, later…
Jill had made some enquiries with her Portuguese colleagues. So, they were good for something. There was a fado café in Chiado, along from Bairro Alto. It was walkable. I thought of those elegant women stepping in their high heels. Flamingos. Smiling at our northern English, our lack of sophistication. I thought of the old woman lying in shadow and light, wreathed in a kind of chiaroscuro. I didn’t know how to tell Jill any more than I could tell her the other stuff. The stuff about Max. That I’d known about it. About something. That I didn’t even care anymore. Max was an annoyance. A cliché. I guessed she’d been hurt by it all in the end and hadn’t shown it.
We linked arms and set off into the evening. The sun still hot. The square was coming out in purple blossom. There was a bird I didn’t recognise singing close by. A girl in a white apron was setting tables at a restaurant for the evening customers, polishing wine glasses, laying out knives and forks. It was tempting to stay just where we were. To let everything else flow past us, to hold onto the moment. Maybe to talk, at last. We walked on, following the streets downward, Jill holding onto my arm.
We found the café up a cobbled street opposite a little baker’s shop and an old- fashioned milliner’s that sold lace and cards of pins. The idea was that you booked in for the evening meal and the fado was served up between courses. It all kicked off at eight o’clock, so we had an hour. We booked a table, the waiter struggling with our surname. Monahan. I had to spell it out for him. We paused in the street.
Jill took my arm.
– Try to stop me!
We walked to a bar and ordered a couple of drinks and some peanuts. I had a beer and Jill went for white wine. Vinho Verde, faintly green. There was another British family there, the father burned brick red, two kids sitting with bottles of Fanta, a smelly baby in a buggy that kept pushing away its bottle of milk away as the mother bent over it. Just like Jacqui, Jill said, smiling at me, remembering something I’d forgotten. I thought of her out there in China and that suddenly felt very far away. Then Jill was telling me about the conference and the research network they were trying to set up, but I was only half-listening. She knew that. She probably expected it by now. I never mentioned the interview or the old lady. I don’t know why. Maybe tomorrow.
When we got back to the restaurant the band was setting up. A woman singer in a long tight frock, cut low in the back. Two guitarists, tuning up. We got a plate of starters – little pastries and olives and more white wine. We clinked glasses and I remembered just how much of our lives we’d spent together. We’d been together longer than before we knew each other. We’d survived together and grown together. And after all, love changes. It changes for the better in some ways.
Jill’s eyes looked very green in the candlelight. When the band lilted into the first song there was this amazing texture as the guitars wove into each other and the singer’s voice rose and fell. Like the sea. Husky, plangent. I remembered the old lady dying in that dim room flooded by darkness and then by light. I still hadn’t said anything to Jill. Maybe I never would. It was too intimate, too difficult somehow. But it wasn’t really a secret either, just something for later. Like that interview. Maybe I’d show her the pictures some time. Maybe. For a moment we were lost in the music, the way you get lost in a book, in a story. Out of time. Even though music keeps time it moved us beyond it. We didn’t know what the woman was singing about. Except that we did. She sang for the sea and for lost love and for the life that was leaving us and that we were leaving. Saudade. That was the word. And the word was almost untranslatable, meaning fate, nostalgia, sorrow, the passion of remembrance. When the red wine arrived it was dark crimson, deep as fruit from a bramble thicket.
After the last applause when the band stood up and bowed low to the audience, I paid the bill. I used a credit card but left a tip in euros. I hated tipping. That false sense of privilege, like acting a part. Being called ‘Sir’ when really you were no one. The singer was outside smoking a cigarette. She stared at us for a moment as we left.
We walked back to the hotel, pausing to look in the shop windows. I remembered that Jill had spent the whole day indoors and hadn’t really seen the city. The statues were huge and frost-white under their spotlights. Families with tired kids were still eating at restaurants along the waterfront. There were the faintest stars struggling beyond the city lights. We should have stayed longer, Jill was saying, it’s so beautiful. Her hands were stroking the hairs on my arms and I felt that old frisson, despite everything. Despite age. Despite whatever had happened. She spoke as if our visit was already over. As if we were already back to our lives. I squeezed her arms and kissed her there in the street. There was still something inexpressible about the feeling of another body against mine. Jill’s body that I knew so well. Or thought I did. I slipped my finger under her blouse at the shoulder and there was her warm skin, a pale band showing her suntan. I put my lips to it tasting the heat of her.
Jill pulled away, laughing, her lips glossy. She put a hand to her ear, checking her earrings. She’d put on the jade ones that I’d tried to fix and that always hung at a slight angle. She took my hand. My phone buzzed in my pocket and I thought it was probably Jacqui getting back to me. Tomorrow morning we’d be in the air, heading for England. Heading for Manchester, landing under low clouds. The air was suddenly much colder as a chill came in from the sea. Jill shivered.
– Come on, Paul. Let’s go.
– Do you want to go straight back?
– Yes, to the hotel. Home.
Later, she’d said. She was getting cold, impatient, rubbing at goosebumps on her arms. She’d been carrying her cardigan but put it on now, shrugging herself into it, straightening it. The hotel wasn’t home. It was just a temporary space. Back in England our other home was waiting. The fridge murmuring in its sleep, the answerphone bleeping, the freezer growing ledges of ice. Dust on the windows, rain quenching the garden.
Jill’s hand was in mine as we walked. She gave me a sideways smile that told me we’d make love later. That we’d wake together in our room with that slight surprise at where we were before packing our things and heading to the airport. What I felt wasn’t regret, exactly. It was that sense of fate, of melancholy. Of saudade. Jill was saying something, but I didn’t catch it. I was thinking about that old woman nearing journey’s end, staring into her future, like a flower’s petals closing for the night. They’d be deep crimson, roses or carnations, the colour of wine or blood. That faint sweet smell, seeping through rooms where light slanted through the shutters. The tumult of her fading mind. Like all of life replaying itself in moments and memories. Like fado.
Graham Mort is Professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature at Lancaster University. He has worked extensively in literature development and radio broadcasting in sub-Saharan Africa and has collaborated on developing women’s narratives in Kurdistan. Visibility: New & Selected Poems appeared from Seren in 2007, when he was also winner of the Bridport Short Story Prize. Graham’s first book of stories, Touch, was published by Seren in 2010 and won the Edge Hill Prize. Terroir, a second collection of short fiction, appeared in 2015, and a new book of poems, Black Shiver Moss, was by Seren in April 2017. A new collection of stories, Like Fado, will appear from Salt in 2020.