Writing is both a passion and profession for Elizabeth Challinor who works as an anthropologist, with a special interest in Cape Verde. She is also co-editor and writer on an internet site called PopAnth which writes popular anthropology for everyone. You may see her articles here: http://popanth.com/people/
We met in the Spring. The air was full of hope and expectation as birds, flowers and bees went about their busy business. Inspired by so much carefree activity, we too plunged head-first into the budding promises of our newly discovered friendship. We spoke with passion and sincerity, putting the world right over afternoon teas in cheerful cafés and in leisurely strolls through boisterous parks. The world around us applauded as we took flight into our own and each other’s dreams and confidences – soul mates at last! We had found each other.
The Summer arrived. The freshness of Spring had given way to a relentless heat and we slowed down our pace, basking in the assurance of our newfound intimacy. We had lost the drive for urgent conversation and were content to look on as others braved the cold waters at the beach’s edge: children building castles in spite of the menaces of the rising tide. We looked knowingly on. The evenings became cooler and dusk ever nearer and you lent me your jacket in late August as we walked on the beach. It felt warm and protective, sheltering me from the night’s breeze.
But by mid-September your jacket was no longer warm enough and in October our feet began to trample falling dreams in streams of yellow and brown. A blanket of golden melancholy overcame us as we watched our dreams turn from green, to yellow to brown and decay. And yet we were not sad. There was something almost inevitable about the whole process and as the leaves were swept up off the ground by gusts of bullying wind, so we went our separate ways, caught up in life’s whirlwinds.
I saw you crossing the street on an icy January morning, enveloped in winter garments. Your big thick boots left dirty marks on the freshly fallen snow and I turned to look at diamonds in a jeweller’s window to avoid eye contact. You walked straight past – had you noticed me? The ice cold air was not conducive to loitering for polite conversation and I sighed in remembrance of our heated confidences in the heady days of Spring. What had gone wrong? I recalled the pain I had felt as we slowly discovered that we were still strangers – strangers caught in a whirlpool of discovery- but strangers nonetheless.
There was a tap on my shoulder. I turned round and found your red face gleaming at me through a woollen frame.
“I thought it might be you”
Your words cut through the air in gusts of heat.
“Do you want to go for a coffee?”
It was a kind gesture that I could not refuse, but it was hard to conjure up the Spring in the middle of Winter. Perhaps there was no need. We sat down, hands wrapped around steaming mugs and I could think of a hundred and one questions to ask you, but felt that I no longer had the right to intrude. You seemed to be having the same problem. We spoke about the weather and other trivialities and finally parted. We agreed to meet up again soon.The end of March and the ice began to melt. As the Spring birds, flowers and bees went about their busy business, I was cautious about so much carefree activity and felt that it would have been better if we had met in a more seasoned season.
A Tale from Inside
It was a small kitchen and Maria explained to me that it had been built taking her size into account. She had been asked to stand at the place where the sink was to be installed for the chimney breast to be brought down to her height at that point. The resulting tailor made wall was built out around the chimney, fitted with cupboard space and cut off just above Maria’s head. One either side of the wall, the ceiling was much higher; to the right there was the hearth and stove and to the left the fridge and small table we all crowded around at mealtimes. I could just about fit underneath the chimney breast without having to strain my neck, so I had no excuses to prevent me from washing up. Manuel, on the other hand, was much taller than his wife, although I’m sure it never crossed anybody’s mind that he should put on an apron!
The moments that I cherished most were when we had all finished eating and the men had left the kitchen so that I found myself alone with Maria. It was a moment that she could afford to relax for a few minutes, sit still and chat. The dirty plates, cutlery, glasses and saucepans spread out around us like the spoils in the aftermath of battle. It gave me a sense of deep satisfaction to spend those few precious moments in private conversation, knowing that any minute the disordered kitchen would catch her eye and our little chat would come to an end. I felt privileged to sit and listen to her tales from the past, knowing that she as a discreet woman, very skilled in holding her tongue. I had learnt to read Maria’s facial expressions, to guess when she was annoyed or disagreed with what was being said. I knew that she liked to keep herself to herself, so during such moments when she entrusted her thoughts to my keeping, I used to feel a warmth flow through my veins.
I don’t recall why Maria began to talk about her uncle Simão. It may have been on the occasion when I asked her what he used to be like as a young man in his thirties and was surprised to be told that she couldn’t say because she was only six at the time. Only then did I realize that the age difference between them had gone through so many different phases: he had been an adult and she a child, whilst now he was like a child in his old age. It was strange to imagine Maria six years old, subject to the authority of uncle Simão. The only creatures under his authority now were the sheep he took to graze early each morning in the fields to the south of the village. He was, in fact, totally dependent upon Maria who cooked his meals, washed his clothes and even made his bed. He had, however, maintained a token of independence by continuing to live in the house across the way, even after Maria’s mother and aunt had died. It was only then, when his sisters were no longer able to cook for him, that he began to eat in Maria’s house. However, he would never linger after mealtimes but would promptly get up after downing his coffee, leaving the table full of the determination and energy of a young man in pursuit of adventure.
It was only after visualizing Maria as a little girl and Uncle Simão as a young man that I came to appreciate the complexity of their relationship. Although on the surface everything appeared to be simple enough, to the keen observer, Maria’s facial expressions seemed to tell a different story. My suspicions were confirmed one Sunday afternoon when she took me by the hand and led the way more than fifty years down memory lane. They were not her memories, but her mother’s memories that came bursting out into the kitchen - with such force that I was left somewhat dazed. Maria went back to the time when she was in her mother’s womb, when uncle Simão had showered torrents of thunder upon her poor mother’s head. Exercising his rights as the offended brother, he had taken the only photograph his sister possessed of the handsome young culprit in question and ripped it into pieces before her tearful eyes. To this day, Maria has not once set her searching eyes upon the face of her father. She was in a fiesta once when an adult grabbed her by the hand.
“Come on! I’m going to show you your father”.
But he had vanished amidst the crowds of dancing couples, groups of roaming men and giggling girls. Maria later heard that he had immigrated to Argentina, taking with him a wife who was later to return a widow. She brought back a half sister for Maria, but neither of them could offer her a photograph or portrait of her father.
I suddenly remembered that on the wall of the dining room, which was reserved for special occasions, hung a photograph of Manuel’s parents. They stood side by side, up against a wall, wearing the kind of solemn expression that was no doubt considered to be appropriate in those days, when the power of the camera to freeze a fleeting moment for posterity had not yet lost any of its magic. Maria had been denied that magic. She had depended upon the words of others, upon those who had told her what a handsome young man her father had been. That part of the story she had told me many a time; but the destructive rage of uncle Simão gave a new twist to her tale. It left me pensive well after Maria had raced back up memory lane to catch up with the washing up. I couldn’t help thinking that the passage of time had brought about its own kind of moral revenge, by placing Simão like a helpless child into the caring hands of the child he had once rejected. For despite not being able to forget, there was no doubt that Maria had been able to forgive:
“How can I bear a grudge against him? He’ll be eighty-five next month!”