The High Mountains of Portugal
Tomás decides to walk.
From his modest flat on Rua São Miguel in the ill-famed Alfama district to his uncle’s stately estate in leafy Lapa, it is a good walk across much of Lisbon. It will likely take him an hour. But the morning has broken bright and mild, and the walk will soothe him. And yesterday Sabio, one of his uncle’s servants, came to fetch his suitcase and the wooden trunk that holds the documents he needs for his mission to the High Mountains of Portugal, so he has only himself to convey.
He feels the breast pocket of his jacket. Father Ulisses’ diary is there, wrapped in a soft cloth. Foolish of him to bring it along like this, so casually. It would be a catastrophe if it were lost. If he had any sense he would have left it in the trunk. But he needs extra moral support this morning, as he does every time he visits his uncle.
Even in his excitement he remembers to forgo his regular cane and take the one his uncle gave him. The handle of this cane is made of elephant ivory and the shaft of African mahogany, but it is unusual mainly because of the round pocket mirror that juts out of its side just beneath the handle. This mirror is slightly convex, so the image it reflects is quite wide. Even so, it is entirely useless, a failed idea, because a walking cane in use is by its nature in constant motion, and the image the mirror reflects is therefore too shaky and fleeting to be helpful in any way. But this fancy cane is a custom-made gift from his uncle, and every time he pays a call Tomás brings it.
He heads off down Rua São Miguel onto Largo São Miguel and then Rua de São João da Praça before turning onto Arco de Jesus—the easy perambulation of a pedestrian walking through a city he has known his whole life, a city of beauty and bustle, of commerce and culture, of challenges and rewards. On Arco de Jesus he is ambushed by a memory of Dora, smiling and reaching out to touch him. For that, the cane is useful, because memories of her always throw him off balance.
“I got me a rich one,” she said to him once, as they lay in bed in his flat.
“I’m afraid not,” he replied. “It’s my uncle who’s rich. I’m the poor son of his poor brother. Papa has been as unsuccessful in business as my uncle Martim has been successful, in exact inverse proportion.”
He had never said that to anyone, commented so flatly and truthfully about his father’s checkered career, the business plans that collapsed one after the other, leaving him further beholden to the brother who rescued him each time. But to Dora he could reveal such things.
“Oh, you say that, but rich people always have troves of money hidden away.”
He laughed. “Do they? I’ve never thought of my uncle as a man who was secretive about his wealth. And if that’s so, if I’m rich, why won’t you marry me?”
People stare at him as he walks. Some make a comment, a few in jest but most with helpful intent. “Be careful, you might trip!” calls a concerned woman. He is used to this public attention; beyond a smiling nod to those who mean well, he ignores it.
One step at a time he makes his way to Lapa, his stride free and easy, each foot lifted high, then dropped with aplomb. It is a graceful gait.
He steps on an orange peel but does not slip.
He does not notice a sleeping dog, but his heel lands just short of its tail.
He misses a step as he is going down some curving stairs, but he is holding on to the railing and he regains his footing easily.
And other such minor mishaps.
Dora’s smile dropped at the mention of marriage. She was like that; she went from the lighthearted to the deeply serious in an instant.
“No, your family would banish you. Family is everything. You cannot turn your back on yours.”
“You are my family,” he replied, looking straight at her.
She shook her head. “No, I am not.”
His eyes, for the most part relieved of the burden of directing him, relax in his skull like two passengers sitting on deck chairs at the rear of a ship. Rather than testily scrutinizing the ground all the time, they glance about dreamily. They notice the shapes of clouds and of trees. They dart after birds. They watch a horse snuffle as it pulls a cart. They come to rest on previously unnoticed architectural details in buildings. They observe the bustle of traffic on Rua Cais de Santarém. All in all, it should be a delightful morning stroll on this pleasant late-December day of the year 1904.
Dora, beautiful Dora. She worked as a servant in his uncle’s household. Tomàs noticed her right away the first time he visited his uncle after she was hired. He could hardly take his eyes off her or get her out of his mind. He made efforts to be especially courteous to her and to engage her in brief conversations over one minor matter after another. It allowed him to keep looking at her fine nose, her bright dark eyes, her small white teeth, the way she moved. Suddenly he became a frequent visitor. He could remember precisely the moment Dora realized that he was addressing her not as a servant but as a woman. Her eyes flitted up to his, their gazes locked for a moment, and then she turned away—but not before a quick complicit smile curled up a corner of her mouth.
Something great was released within him then, and the barrier of class, of status, of utter improbability and unacceptability vanished. Next visit, when he gave her his coat, their hands touched and both lingered on that touch. Matters proceeded swiftly from there. He had, until then, had experience of sexual intimacy only with a few prostitutes, occasions that had been terribly exciting and then terribly depressing. He had fled each time, ashamed of himself and vowing never to do it again. With Dora, it was terribly exciting and then terribly exciting. She played with the thick hairs of his chest as she rested her head on him. He had no desire to flee anywhere.
“Marry me, marry me, marry me,” he pleaded. “We will be each other’s wealth.”
“No, we will only be poor and isolated. You don’t know what that’s like. I do, and I don’t want you to go through it.”
Into that amorous standstill was born their little Gaspar. If it were not for his strenuous pleading, she would have been dismissed from his uncle’s household when it was discovered that she was with child. His father had been his sole supporter, telling him to live his love for Dora, in precise opposition to his uncle’s silent opprobrium. Dora was relegated to invisible duties deep within the kitchen. Gaspar lived equally invisibly in the Lobo household, invisibly loved by his father, who invisibly loved his mother.
Tomás visited as often as he decently could. Dora and Gaspar came to see him in the Alfama on her days off. They would go to a park, sit on a bench, watch Gaspar play. On those days they were like any normal couple. He was in love and happy.
As he passes a tram stop, a tram rumbles up on its rails, a transportation newness hardly three years old, shiny yellow and electric. Commuters rush forward to get on it, commuters hurry to get off it. He avoids them all—except one, into whom he crashes. After a quick interaction in which mutual apologies are proffered and accepted, he moves on.
The sidewalk has several raised cobblestones but he glides over them easily.
His foot strikes the leg of a café chair. It is bumped, nothing more.
Death took Dora and Gaspar one unyielding step at a time, the doctor summoned by his uncle expending his skills to no avail. First a sore throat and fatigue, followed by fever, chills, aches, painful swallowing, difficulty breathing, convulsions, a wild-eyed, strangled losing of the mind—until they gave out, their bodies as grey, twisted, and still as the sheets they’d thrashed in. He was there with each of them. Gaspar was five years old, Dora was twenty-four.
He did not witness his father’s death a few days later. He was in the music room of the Lobo house, sitting silently with one of his cousins, numb with grief, when his uncle entered, grim-faced. “Tomás,” he said, “I have terrible news. Silvestro, your father, has died. I have lost my only brother.” The words were only sounds but Tomás felt crushed physically, as if a great rock had fallen on him, and he keened like a wounded animal. His warm bear of a father! The man who had raised him, who had countenanced his dreams!
In the course of one week—Gaspar died on Monday, Dora on Thursday, his father on Sunday—his heart became undone like a bursting cocoon. Emerging from it came no butterfly but a grey moth that settled on the wall of his soul and stirred no farther.
There were two funerals, a paltry one for a servant girl from the provinces and her bastard son, and a rich one for a rich man’s poor brother, whose lack of material success was discreetly not mentioned.
He does not see an approaching carriage as he steps off a curb, but the driver’s cry alerts him and he scampers out of the way of the horse.
He brushes against a man standing with his back to him. He raises his hand and says, “My apologies.” The man shrugs amiably and watches him go.
One step at a time, every few steps turning his head to glance over his shoulder at what lies onward, Tomás makes his way to Lapa walking backwards.
“Why? Why are you doing this? Why don’t you walk like a normal person? Enough of this nonsense!” his uncle has cried on more than one occasion. In response Tomás has come up with good arguments in defence of his way of walking. Does it not make more sense to face the elements—the wind, the rain, the sun, the onslaught of insects, the glumness of strangers, the uncertainty of the future—with the shield that is the back of one’s head, the back of one’s jacket, the seat of one’s pants? These are our protection, our armour. They are made to withstand the vagaries of fate. Meanwhile, when one is walking backwards, one’s more delicate parts—the face, the chest, the attractive details of one’s clothing—are sheltered from the cruel world ahead and displayed only when and to whom one wants with a simple voluntary turn that shatters one’s anonymity. Not to mention arguments of a more athletic nature. What more natural way to walk downhill, he contends, than backwards? The forefeet touch down with nimble delicacy, and the calf muscles can calibrate their tensing and releasing with precision. Movement downwards is therefore elastic and without strain. And should one trip, what safer way to do so than backwards, the cushioned buttocks blunting one’s fall? Better that than to break one’s wrists in a forward tumble. And he’s not excessively stubborn about it. He does make exceptions, when climbing the many long, winding stairs of the Alfama, for example, or when he has to run.
All of these justifications his uncle waved aside impatiently. Martim Augusto Mendes Lobo is an impatient successful man. Yet he knows why Tomás walks backwards, despite his testy interrogations and his nephew’s dissembling explanations. One day Tomás overheard him talking to a visiting friend. It was the very dropping of his uncle’s voice that made him prick up his ears.
“. . . the most ridiculous scene,” his uncle was saying, sotto voce. “Imagine this: Ahead of him—that is, behind him—there is a streetlight. I call over my secretary, Benito, and we watch in silent fascination, our minds preoccupied with the same question: Will my nephew walk into the streetlight? At that moment, another pedestrian appears on the street, at the other end. This man sees Tomás walking towards him backwards. We can tell from his cocked head that my nephew’s curious way of advancing has caught his attention. I know from experience that there will be an encounter of sorts—a comment made, a jest thrown out, at the very least a bewildered stare as he passes by. Sure enough, a few steps before Tomás reaches the streetlight, the other man quickens his pace and stops him with a tap on the shoulder. Tomás turns. Benito and I cannot hear what the two say to each other, but we can watch the pantomime. The stranger points to the streetlight. Tomás smiles, nods, and brings a hand to his chest to express his gratitude. The stranger smiles back. They shake hands. With a wave to each other they depart, each going his way, the stranger down the street, and Tomás—swivelling round, moving backwards once more—up the street. He insouciantly circles the streetlight.
“Ah, but wait! It’s not over. After a few steps the other pedestrian turns his head to glance back at Tomás, and clearly he is surprised to see that he is still walking backwards. Concern can be read on his face—Careful, you’ll have an accident if you don’t watch out!—but also a measure of embarrassment because Tomás is looking his way and has seen him turn to stare, and we all know it’s rude to stare. The man quickly turns his head to face forward again, but it’s too late: He collides with the next streetlight. He hits it like a clapper hits a bell. Both Benito and I wince instinctively in sympathy. Tottering, he grimaces as he brings his hands to his face and chest. Tomás runs to help him—he runs forward. You’d think it would look normal, his forward gait, but it doesn’t. There is no bounce to his step. He advances with great, long strides, his torso moving smoothly in a straight line, as if on a conveyor belt.
“Another inaudible exchange takes place between the two men, Tomás expressing great concern, the other man waving it aside while keeping a hand pressed to his face. Tomás retrieves the man’s hat, which has fallen to the ground. With another handshake and a more muted wave, the poor man staggers off. Tomás—and Benito and I—watch him go. Only once the man has turned the corner of the street does Tomás, in his usual rearward manner, resume his course. But the incident has flustered him, evidently, because he now smartly bangs into the streetlight he so artfully avoided a minute earlier. Rubbing the back of his head, he turns to glare at it.