I first met Jose Louis Vercas on the concrete apron jutting out into the mouth of Targus where the splendour of the Manueline Port of Lisboa ends and a wide expanse of river divides the city from Alcântara. He was short, but well-muscled and possessed of that curiously Portuguese combination of a mane of swept-back, black and wavy hair; and a forehead so high it begged to be labelled, “domed”. He said he too was a teacher, but offered no hint of a subject or at what level he taught and, to be frank, my interest did not extend that far.
“Do you have it?” I asked in my formal Portuguese. He smiled and nodded – a slight movement of his head, causing a lock of stray hair to struggle free. Patting his messenger bag, he said in accent-free English, “It’s here.”
“Let me see,” I urged. I could feel my excitement rising.
“Proverbs 31:10”, he smiled, revealing tobacco stained teeth. He stood close, his hand clutching the lip of his bag’s flap and I could smell his habit on his breath. I understood.
“I have the money,” I replied and mirrored his actions by placing my hand on my bag.
“Let us walk, Senhor Carrickfergus,” he said, the first hint of faulty pronunciation evident in a terminal “shh” as he said my name. “It is too public here.”
“Vamos,” I responded, “Mas para onde iremos?”
“There is a café I know in The Chiado”, he responded, “We’ll be safe there.”
We walked along the Rua do Alecrim stopping to gaze into windows and light cigarettes in doorways. Twice we doubled back, and criss-crossed the road, dodging kamikaze scooter riders, until we emerged opposite the façade of the Café A Brasileira, the statue of Fernando Pessoa in his usual place, sipping his usual coffee and thinking his usual great thoughts.
“A good choice,” I murmured: Pessoa is my favourite Portuguese poet.
“I thought you would like it. Let’s sit.” He indicated a pair of white metal-framed chairs. We sat, we talked inconsequentially, and drank coffee appreciatively until our options narrowed.
“So, the diamonds.” He said. “Or Euros, I don’t care which.”
I reached into my bag, removed a packet, and pushed it across the table. He flipped it open, peered inside and smiled his toothy, tobacco smile.
“That will do nicely,” he said, “As you English say.”
At that moment, three tall, dark-clad figures approached us rapidly, but silently, their hands clutching the butts of holstered pistols. The lead figure flashed a badge and said, “Jose Louis Vercas, please come with us.”
Vercas was like a fluid in motion, leaping from his chair, three swift strides across the concourse and on to the back of a waiting scooter, which sped off down the Rua Garret. Before he disappeared, he turned and our eyes met. He shrugged and I knew I had lost it forever. My loss immeasurable, my hopes dashed and my desire unfulfilled. A hand touched my shoulder.
'Saudade' was first published by the Swansea Writers Circle on 27 January 2020.
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