Miracles have legs
At first, it was just one blackbird. Its song moved like liquid silver through the large leafy trees in the darkness of the park. Andrew lay in his solitary bed listening and staring out at the orange-brown sky. It was the very end of the night and London had stopped moving for a moment. Another blackbird started up further away.
Then came other sounds; footsteps of a lonely walker roaming the streets; a taxi driving down the road, its engine rattling from years of service. In the dim London glow he could see his notebook, pens, glasses on the bedside table..
Normally, Andrew would have snapped on his light and written copious notes; about the birds’ territorial whistles in the dark; the sense of space, distance, destination. He lay there as the almost visible precious moments slipped away. It was as though a glacier was slowly moving down his chest.
The birds continued to sing and through the hours, slowly, the darkness lessened, became grey. Cars began to move. Soon the roar of traffic drowned out all birdsong and footsteps.
Andrew reached for his glasses and swung his legs out of bed and into his slippers, glanced at the half-filled suitcase and sighed heavily.
Flying was for birds. To rise into the air in a roaring metal canister … He walked over to his window. He was level with the tree tops, bird land. Looking down with tired eyes he watched commuters walking steadily in the grey light. A plastic bag by the hedge floated in the draught. Up, up, like a jelly fish, it went over the hedge and into the park.
On his desk, as though mocking him, were his two slim volumes of poetry. He stared at them, wondering how on earth he had managed to write so many words. His notebooks were gathering dust and he'd even forgotten his passwords for the computer.
He glanced at his reflection in the tarnished mirror. Although approaching middle age, he had a young looking, pasty face, having spent most of his life indoors. His body seemed boneless. His grey eyes were hidden behind heavy, dark framed glasses, which acted as a shield, protecting him from the outside world.
Methodically he packed the remaining few things and on impulse, grabbed a framed photo of his mother and father and himself as a child. His father stared out of the photo, starved and black like a crow. The Rev. John James MacIntyre had lived within the walls of his Bible. Looking at his father’s face he wondered how it was for him, now that he was dead.
At the funeral, six moths ago, he had thrown the earth on the coffin and stood by his grieving mother. Then he had walked away, to feel the light spring rain fall on his shoulders and breathe the soft Scottish air. John James MacIntyre had gone to meet his Maker. Andrew hoped He was a nicer God than his father had lectured him about throughout his childhood.
He should have felt relieved that he could no longer disappoint him, but instead there was a cold, deadly anger knifing through his chest. He found he couldn't write and his dreams were of black dark places that pressed into him.
At least his work kept him busy. He was popular. His slim volumes got him invited all over Europe, to lecture on the making of poetry. In fact it was because of a two week stint he had done in Lisbon University a few months ago, that he was packing and flying today.
One of the students had encouraged him to take the momentous decision to leave Battersea for an extended period and had recommended her mother’s holiday cottage, ‘somewhere lovely’ in Alentejo, south of Lisbon. He could rent it for the winter. The English department in the University had offered him part time work over the winter term. So here he was, flying south. Like a migratory bird, he thought.
When he arrived in Faro and stepped off the plane he was welcomed by warm air and a brilliantly blue sky. There were palm trees and people in shorts and tee shirts. In his trusty corduroys and tweed jacket he felt a bit overdressed.
Following Emma's instructions he caught a train from Faro. It rolled through the country in a north westerly direction, stopping here and there at empty stations, giving a little sigh before continuing on through a wild looking, burnt-up landscape. Andrew noticed a lot of tortured trees, dry river beds, and brown hills, occasionally blackened by recent forest fires, and a few straggling villages, or settlements that clung to the hillside, their whitewashed walls glowing in the bright sun. It looked so alien.
At his stop he climbed down from the train and lugged his suitcase and briefcase towards the exit to find a taxi.
An old couple, both very small and wrinkled, dressed in black, followed behind him. Between them they had a cardboard box, roughly pierced and tied with string. From it came the sound of baby chicks, peep-peeping. The woman had a head scarf and a straw hat over her head. She clutched a large umbrella, which Andrew thought strange in this heat, but when they reached the curb outside the station and they all stood blinking in the sun, waiting, she unfurled it and cast a welcome shadow over them. Soon the sound of an approaching motor made them look hopefully along the road and a black and green Mercedes taxi came roaring round the bend. It parked in front of them, pumping out loud accordion music. Andrew, being first, went to the driver and showed him the address he had written on a piece of paper. The taxi driver looked at it and then at the old couple.
He said something to Andrew and beckoned the old people. Andrew watched with a mixture of rage and shame as the driver got out and and ushered them into the back of the car, talking loudly all the time and gesticulating, waving his hand out towards the hills.
The driver came over to Andrew wearing a clownish grin and shrugging his shoulders. He patted Andrew on the back to reassure him, and pointed to the clock above the entrance to the waiting room. He held up his hand and spread out his fingers and counted them. Then he leaped into his car and zoomed off, leaving Andrew in a cloud of dust. He stood, mournfully, watching the dust settle on himself and his luggage. Here he was, outside a deserted, rather derelict station somewhere in Alentejo. There was no village that he could see, just the road that the taxi had taken, and the hills, and those tortured, twisted trees that grew everywhere.
Andrew hoped that he understood that if he waited here five minutes the taxi man would return. He looked up at the clock. It said eleven o'clock. Sighing, he left his suitcase on the curb and wandered back towards the station. The silence seemed to hang in the hot air, now that the train and the taxi had gone.
His footsteps echoed as he walked through the archway that served as a waiting room and the way through to the platforms. The station must have been built at a time when trains were the way forward, in the nineteen twenties, perhaps. Andrew looked at the verdant art nouveau tiles on the walls as he wandered around. It was a large building, with many windows and doors, all locked and shuttered. The ticket window was a blind eye, the glass dusty and lined with a piece of old cardboard with some faded copperplate script written on it.
The waiting room had a wooden bench with names scratched out of the varnish, ('Amo-te Ana' and 'Benfica'). A timetable had been selo-taped to the wall above it. Andrew glanced at it and found that it was current, - that is it was for this year. Trains passed this station twice a day – once going North and once going South. He wandered ouside and found an enormous palm tree full of sparrows standing guard next to a dilapidated concrete building which turned out to be a toilet.
Andrew walked back to his suitcase with a feeling of growing tension. The clock still read eleven o'clock. After waiting ten minutes he realised the clock was not working. He began to wonder if he had understood the taxi driver's hand signals. Going back through the waiting room he glanced at a pay phone that hung on the wall. Was there anyone who could help him?
He looked along the train tracks that went off into the hills, and felt as desolate and deserted as the station. Abandoned was the word that came floating into his head. He imagined he was in a film set where something very unpleasant was about to happen, and he, the innocent tourist, was in the middle...
The sound of lots of small bells drew his attention to the other side of the tracks, past a decaying warehouse. A flock of sheep and goats were moving through the trees, followed by a man wearing a sleeveless sheepskin coat. The shepherd walked with a steady pace, his colours merging with the herd and the landscape. A dog ran alongside. The sound of the bells was light and musical. His shoulders relaxed as he watched the herd pass behind a hill, their bells diminishing, and then he heard the honk of a car horn. His taxi had returned. The clock still read eleven.
The journey felt as long and twisty as the music. The taxi man drove with scary confidence, waving to tractor drivers and flashing his lights at passing pick-up trucks. Andrew sat in the back lurching and gripping his arm rest, trying to keep his eye on the horizon, as though at sea.
Eventually they turned onto a dirt track. Relieved at the change of pace, he looked around the valley. There were two small, round hills through which the road twisted. On the summit of each hill grew a shrub. An image of breasts with nipples flitted through his mind. In fact the whole landscape had a very feminine look; curvaceous. Andrew licked his lips nervously and glanced at the taxi driver, feeling rather embarrassed by this unexpected thought.
When they passed between the mounds they reached the top of a wide valley surrounded by more soft hills. The sun was low on the horizon and for a moment there was a shining strip of gold which he realised must be the sea. Then they descended into the next valley.
Finally they stopped by a tall hedge of brambles and he was ushered out. The driver wrote the fare on the dusty paintwork. In London, a journey this long would have cost a small fortune so he gave the man a generous tip. When the taxi drove off he was left standing by his long shadow on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere.
A yellow dog came out of a large clump of ivy, barking and wagging its tail. It made its way down toward him and his suitcase, still barking. Relieved to see any sign of life, Andrew made friendly noises towards the dog and patted it, at the same time looking out for any more signs of life.
“Shut up!” A loud voice came from the same clump of ivy.
The dog stopped immediately. With tail between its legs it scuttled back. Andrew, who if he had a tail felt it would be well tucked in also, straightened up and turned towards the figure that was walking down towards him; a small, curvy, woman with a mass of brown curly hair, wearing mud-stained jeans and a loose tartan shirt.
“Welcome to Tres Ribeiras” Her voice was softer now. She gave a brief smile. Her hand shake was strong, her hand warm.
‘Louisa’ she told him. “Honey” She pointed to the dog.
“I'll show you the house. Follow me.”
She turned and pushed aside the overgrown branches along a bushy path.
Andrew walked behind the woman, looking at her hair. It was very like Emma's but darker. She looked almost too young to have a 22 year old daughter. He felt he should say something, but her back was like a wall.
He followed her towards a small, white building that was half-consumed by a huge bougainvillea. The dog ran along side, sniffing his suitcase and his trousers. Andrew stopped to smell some long, white, trumpet-like flowers which hung over the path. Louisa gave him a quick piercing look.
He inhaled the strong sweet scent.
'They only smell in the evening.'
Andrew saw that she had dark blue eyes.
The patio was so overgrown with twining branches and leaves that it had a green gloom to it, almost as though it were underwater. She kicked away some fallen bougainvillea flowers and opened a glass door which led into the kitchen. Briefly, she showed him how to light the gas water heater and then she stood in the doorway and pointed towards the big clump of ivy.
“I've got a stew on the go. Come over when you’re ready.”
Andrew stood in the kitchen after she left and looked around his new home. The rays of the setting sun shone through the doorway and lit up the clay tiles on the floor. The whitewashed walls glowed.
The room was simple; a sink, a cooker, some wooden shelves with plates and pots and pans on them, a table with four wooden chairs. Bookshelves filled with old paperbacks lined the opposite wall and a wood burning stove squatted next to an old well-worn leather sofa. He tentatively sat on the edge and looked around. He could see a field on a hill through the window, with trees on the top. He got up and went through a door which led into a corridor with two bedrooms and a bathroom at the end.
He chose the nearest bedroom, his mind in a whirl, and put his suitcase down. He opened the window and lay down on the antique iron bed, just to rest for a moment, to get his bearings. What was he doing here? Six months felt like a very long time.
Some bells interrupted his growing feeling of dread. Not the sweet tinkling orchestra that he heard at the station, but louder, bigger bells. He listened for a while and then got up and looked out the window. A small herd of hairy, red-brown cows were looking over the fence at him. They were chewing and staring and nodding their bells. Andrew closed the window. Their baleful stares were too cruel. He was not ready for such frank curiosity.
Suddenly it was almost dark. He drew his hands up and down the walls by the door of the bedroom, looking for a light switch. He moved into the gloom of the kitchen and repeated the action there.
By the front door he found a small niche. In it there was a candle and a box of matches. There were no light switches. There was no electricity.
With an unpleasant feeling of tension in his stomach he put the candle on the table and decided to find Louisa’s house before it got so dark he would not be able to find his way. He could see the clump of ivy looming darker than the approaching night and he headed off in that direction, holding his arms out in front of him to ward off any surprises. Some bushes rubbed and swished against him as he went blindly down the path and then he saw a chink of light to the right of the ivy, coming from the open door of a tiny, stone house.
He climbed the steps that led onto a cobbled area in front of the house and stood in the doorway and knocked. The source of light came from a large open fire. It was the only light in the room. The dog, which was lying in front of the fire, looked up at him and gave a friendly wag. A cat climbed out of a child-sized rush-bottom chair and came over and wound itself around his legs, tail up and shivering.
“Hello” Andrew addressed the house generally, a questioning inflection in his greeting.
A muffled voice came from behind a blanket hanging on the wall to the right of the fireplace.
“Come in. I'll be right out.”
He moved cautiously towards the fire where a huge tree trunk was smouldering behind smaller, blazing twigs. On either side of the fireplace were two small chairs and in the middle of the room stood a kitchen table and two ordinary wooden chairs.
Andrew felt like a giant in the tiny, windowless room. The walls were lined with shelves, randomly laden with jars and books. Some bunches of dried plants and strings of onions and garlic hung above the fireplace. He felt the fumes of burning pine and cooking food flood round him, penetrating his clothes.
Louisa came through the blanket dusting off a bottle of wine with her sleeve and shaking her mop of hair.
“It gets very dusty under the bed, but it’s the best place to store the wine.” She tossed her head. She had fluff in her hair, a cobweb, perhaps.
She told him to sit, indicating the tiny chairs. He lowered himself onto one and watched her move around looking for the corkscrew and going to a dark shelf. He heard the pop of the cork and the chink of glasses. She worked with her back to him preparing the table.
“Emma told me that you make your own wine” he said.
The cat jumped onto his lap.
“Yes. Last year was a good year.”
She turned holding two stumpy glass beakers full of dark red wine and he took one, then she went and sat on the other little chair and put her elbows on her knees. She cradled her glass in her hands and sipped, tasting the good year, looking into the fire.
Andrew held the thick glass in his hand. It looked like a mustard jar, he thought, and then he too sipped. A taste of cupboardy velvet coated his mouth; it was very pleasant; blackcurrant, slightly spicy. He closed his eyes and savoured the taste. When he opened them again Louisa was staring intently at him, her face lit by the flames.
“That is a good wine, a very good wine” He declared. Louisa nodded in agreement.
The dog gave a little groan and moved away from the heat. The cat jumped off his lap and sauntered out through a round hole in the bottom of the front door. Louisa put her glass down and picked up a wooden spoon from beside the ashes and used it to take off the lid of a three-legged pot that stood in the fire. The room was filled with the smell of smoked sausage and garlic which bubbled loudly. Andrew stared at Louisa leaning over the fire, stirring the small cauldron.
“It smells good!” He tried to keep the surprise out of his voice.
“Yup, I think it’s ready to eat.”
They moved to the table and she ladled the stew into wooden bowls. With strong steady hands she lit a candle, and then holding a large solid-looking loaf against her, she drew a sharp knife through it to produce a couple of chunky slices.
Andrew was used to eating on his own and hated small talk but he found himself trying to open the conversation again.
“What brought you to Portugal?”
Louisa just shrugged, mopped up her plate with the bread.
“I like the sea.”
“Had you visited before? Did you know what it would be like?”
“No, I just wanted to go south, to somewhere warm, with an Atlantic coast.”
“Emma seems to have adjusted well.”
Louisa shrugged again.
“She was lucky. The natives here are friendly.”
They drank the wine, finished the bottle. Louisa darted through the blanket and came out with another bottle and a large bowl made from the bark of a cork tree, filled with walnuts and apples. They moved to the low chairs by the fire with the bowl between them and the wine bottle glinting in the firelight.
Andrew stretched out his legs in front of the fire.
“When I was a child we went up to Scotland every year for our summer holidays. Stayed in a bothy in the Highlands with an open fire. We burned peat and spent the days walking and bird watching.”
He stopped talking for a moment, remembering how it seemed impossible to see the lark in the sky, and the unnerving thought that it was desperately trying to distract him from its nest, which he never found. And the cloud shadows, how quickly they flew over the mountains, giving the landscape motion.
“I am Scottish. I was born there.” He told her. “My parents moved down to London when I was two, but I still feel Scottish.”
Louisa sat with her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands and stared into the fire while he talked about Scotland, then she poured them out some more wine.
“I have Scottish connections, too” she said. “I moved to the west coast, near Oban, when I was twelve. My mother and stepfather bought a house and started up a bed and breakfast business.” She hesitated for a moment, considering whether to continue.
“The bed and breakfast business didn’t suit me.” She gave a bitter laugh. “And I never felt really welcome there. You know? No cousins over the hill, no aunties on the islands. I missed that family feeling. I moved back to England as soon as I could.”
“Did you find it there?” Andrew asked.
“That family feeling.”
“I have Emma” she replied giving him a sharp look.
They sat and listened to the empty nut shells burning in the coals, both lost in their own thoughts. His eyes began to droop. It was time to make his way back to his house. He asked for a torch, and then remembered to ask about electricity.
Louisa got up and went to a shelf near the door and picked up a storm lantern and gave it a shake to hear if it had any paraffin in it, then lit it.
“No electricity” she told him as she handed over the lantern. “But there is a solar panel which will give power for a light…”
“Do you know if it can charge up a laptop?”
“I should think so. I'll show you how to set it up tomorrow.”
She opened the door and pointed him in the right direction.