By CASEY WALKER
The secret police, people said, but this was a label M never understood. Everyone knows we exist, he thought, and of course we are not secret to ourselves—from whom is this secret kept?
Couples filled the Café Suíça, no longer the solitary men of before the war. From the rack of newspapers, they never chose the copies of O Século. They spoke anything but Portuguese. French and English. German. Slavic languages he could barely identify. M observed their necklaces, their rings. Some were Jews of the merchant classes, shaken from the rest of Europe, men wearing one last suit of shabby clothes and bartering away the family jewelry. Other patrons were no doubt spies for the Allied or Axis agencies. There was a painter at a nearby table, his canvases at his feet rolled up and tied with twine. He drank tea with his dowager patron, who still wore her better dresses. The world had come to Lisbon, M thought—something that had not been true for four hundred years.
It was a chambermaid M was waiting on, from the Hotel Francfort. Among the rooms the maid serviced, there lived an old French couple registered under a false surname. The German security services had requested the PVDE make immediate delivery of that pair. The Reich believed the couple were financiers of the French resistance who’d slipped through Bordeaux with forged papers. They’d been removed from a train near Madrid, but monetary intervention or official incompetence allowed their escape from General Franco’s police. The couple had resided in Lisbon ever since. M believed the maid could help the Portuguese authorities assess the truth of the German allegations, and determine whether this was an instance to give in to the Reich’s request or to plead to the usual incapacities. This was the chess match of Portugal’s official neutrality.
What bruised M, like a knock to the sternum, was that he recognized the chambermaid. He had not seen her in twenty years, but it was her, without question. She was not so young anymore, past thirty, as was he, but coming upon her that morning at the hotel had brought his childhood back from out of oblivion. Fisherman spilling their nets onto shore, the smell of sardines—her village the next one over from his. The woman she was, like the girl she had been, was dark-featured, with black hair and sand-colored eyes, a world away from her sisters, fair, lunar girls who turned bright pink at the first glimpse of the sun. To stand near her again, after the passage of so much time, made him sense something in the air that was fresh and clean and not born of a wartime city. But all through that brief encounter, the maid had given M no sign that she recognized him in return. If that wounded him, it did not surprise him—he was younger than she was by a crucial few years, a chubby village boy with no talent for swimming, fishing, singing, or the guitar. What would have distinguished him in her memory? He’d stifled these thoughts, held his composure, instructed her to meet him at this café, and then watched her vanish back into the hotel. He spent the afternoon discovering what he could of her history. She’d arrived in Lisbon after being dismissed from the casino in Estoril once she could no longer hide a pregnancy. Unwed, she found a man to marry her regardless, a butcher twice her age who tended a dingy shop of guts in the Alfama.
M checked his timepiece. The hour was too advanced for him to pretend that the maid was merely late. The couples in the Café Suíça were beginning to pay their bills. The lights inside were put out, the chairs stacked. The outdoor tables were emptying. M watched patrons take their leave into Rossio, the stones echoing beneath their footsteps.
The waiter returned to M’s table. Every saucer rattled in the man’s hands, and he stumbled over his worn-out shoes. M suspected the waiter recognized him—recognized, that is, M’s profession. It was nothing he took pains to hide. The quality of his information depended on people knowing what he was.
“You watch like a small boy,” M said to the waiter.
The waiter stood with an empty tray held flat against his stomach like a shield. He spoke so quietly M had trouble hearing.
“Do you pay?” the waiter asked.
“For what?” M said.
The man slouched. It seemed he might become thin as a candlewick and disappear between the paving stones.
“I… I don’t know,” the waiter said.
M caught his own reflection in the café window, his round features and heavy eyebrows, his large and easy smile that showed most of his teeth, his ears that cupped outward. Everyone in Lisbon had a cousin who resembled him, or a favorite vegetable seller. He could put people at ease when he desired, though mostly he did not try.
“Information can be offered,” M said to the waiter. “Afterward, there might be assistance—favors.”
“My wife has trouble…” the man said. He trailed off, then returned to himself. “And I have nothing for a doctor.”
“And so?” M said.
“I don’t know,” the waiter said again.
M dismissed the man back into the lingering chatter inside, the sound of coins being counted and stacked. The waiter would likely pester him in a few days with something overheard from one of these couples, and M could tell already that the information would be contrived, without value. The problem with most people is that they did not know what to listen for. They brought him rumors of rumors. Six men selling six versions of an unremarkable conversation. They came to inform on the workings of the Germans, and they did not speak German. It was the same with news of the Allies. The longer he worked for the PVDE, the more vigorously he wanted to shake people by the shoulders, shout into their faces: There are real secrets in this world. How does that fact escape you?
M left escudos for his digestif and the untouched pastry and exited the café into Rossio. The Hotel Francfort faced the square, just south of the café. He could not help circling the building, around to the servant’s entrance. He lingered there a long time, willing her to appear. The door did open once, and a maid waddled out, carrying a giant tub that blocked her face. But when she set it down, it was an old woman, short of breath, who dumped black water down a grate.
He climbed the hill up Rua Garrett toward the Largo do Camões, where Paulo waited for him by the quiosque. M never entered the PVDE’s physical headquarters, which sometimes allowed him to believe that he was not truly of the PVDE. His work for the Polícia de Vigilância e de Defesa do Estado did not bring him into interrogation rooms or prisons—that business was for others, for Paulo. M imagined himself instead as something like a protective father—as the name suggested, vigilant in defense of the state—offering his ear to every Portuguese who wished to preserve the nation from traitors and outside harm.
Paulo had grown larger during the war, and now could not walk even the short distance from the PVDE building to Largo do Camões without losing his breath. To continue up Misericórdia as far as the Igreja São Roque would put him in his grave. But Paulo’s face remained surprisingly lean, as handsome as in his army days.
“No sight of your chambermaid?” Paulo said. “Well, what does it matter?”
“Every morning she enters the room of the old couple,” M said. “She might discover, with discretion, if they are who the Germans say they are.”
“The Germans think even the swallows are spies,” Paulo said.
If M counted up the evenings he spent in Paulo’s company, the man would seem to be his closest friend. Their relationship was complicated by the small fact that M did not especially like Paulo. But M did appreciate that inside of Paulo’s veins there coursed a melancholy river as wide as the Tejo itself, and he could not dispute Paulo’s belief that life was a hopeless errand, without merit or purpose. The meaninglessness of all human striving was Paulo’s justification for extracting from his work every personal advantage he could. He did a brisk traffic in document forgery, black-market food rations, and even, he’d bragged, murder for hire.
“Poor Portugal,” Paulo said. “Like a dog filled with fleas.”
“And not even allowed to scratch,” M said.
Paulo leaned his head back, his eyes at the rooflines. “We’ll be overrun by the Germans, no different than France. Or else we are captured for a little pet by General Franco. Or, by some miracle, we survive, only to be a lapdog for Churchill and the Americans.”
“Perhaps what you say is true,” M said, “but it is not true yet.”
Paulo made a great noise adjusting his body on the bench. He wiped his brow.
“If I were to see this maid with my own eyes, what would I find?” Paulo asked.
“You would find a woman well placed to answer a question we have been asked,” M said.
Paulo laughed. “I’m relieved to find you are as human as the rest of us. By all means, pursue the girl. Get all you can from her. But you won’t have more than a week for your game. We will likely have to give the couple over no matter what you discover.”
“Even if the Reich is mistaken?”
“Your little maid can prove them wrong?”
“I don’t say she can or she can’t,” M said. “All I say is I wish to know.”
“I know what you wish to know,” Paulo said. He gave M a coarse smile.
It embarrassed M that desire for the maid was so clearly visible on his person, like a stain on his threadbare coat. M seldom spoke of personal matters, but he suspected Paulo knew in any case that M remained married, though his wife had long since taken their boy and returned to her parents in Coimbra. Immorality by itself was irrelevant, but handing Paulo knowledge of transgression, M knew, was unwise. Sin, shame, jealousy—these were the coal the PVDE burned to light its rooms. Everyone made their accommodations for survival, lived in ways they could not bear for their neighbors to know, and this left each person vulnerable to the secret police in his or her own way.
In the morning, M went first to the Hotel Francfort and described the maid to a bag-eyed young man carrying out the kitchen trash. The boy said she might be on the rooftop, beating rugs. “You take this to her,” M said. He pushed a note on the boy, who spilled his sack of potato peels and cod bones.
Afterward, M met a man hurrying for a train in the Cais do Sodré who wished to sell information on a neighbor, and M was astounded that the informer had not run into that neighbor, who had just left M’s company. In a rowdy tasca up Rua do Alecrim, he met a dentist from Belém. He called on a shipping clerk on the Rua dos Douradores, a pastry maker who supplied him a box of jesuítas. One man claimed he could expose the black-market sellers supplying the Germans with tungsten, but the PVDE was enmeshed in those operations already. Another said he could identify the kingpin in a ring of document forgers, but the forgers he named all worked for the PVDE. The rest was gossip, disputes rooted in stolen chickens, desperate-voiced escudo-beggars who would have kneeled to shine his shoes if he’d asked. A few struggled to make themselves noble, proclaiming a deep love for Salazar and the Estado Novo. A shoemaker told M he wished to see every Communist burned in the middle of the Rossio, as the Inquisition once did with its heretics.
A whitecap wind came off the wide expanse of the Tejo, and on a hilltop above the river, beneath a statue of the sea beast Adamastor, the maid arrived in a dirty uniform. She squeezed her hands—one, then the other. M thanked her for coming, and she stared past him to the empty headlands across the river.
“You recognize the couple I describe?” M said.
“I would hardly notice them except that you’ve asked,” she said. Her voice was hoarse.
M waited on any recognition from her, the slightest pause over his person as someone familiar. But there was nothing. It was as though their life as village children existed for M alone. He felt, at the same time, both invisible to her and transparent. Because surely she could not stand here above the tumbledown quarters of Lisbon, in all its blue-tiled and red-shingled poverty, laundry snapping like flags, voices calling from balcony to balcony, the peach light of oncoming evening falling onto the blue river, and imagine he chose this place, at this hour, to interrogate her about an old Frenchman with ugly teeth and his wife with a bad hip.
“Who do they speak to?” M asked.
“To no one,” she said. “They hardly leave the room. They don’t drop a crumb. They make up the bed themselves.”
He stared at an indentation at the base of her neck, between her clavicles, where her voice vibrated.
“The room must contain documents,” M said. “Papers, letters. Something that proves who they are, or who they aren’t.”
“How can you prove who they aren’t?” she asked.
She leaned to her left side, protecting a swollen right ankle. He expected her to inquire what would become of the French couple if she did as he asked, but instead she turned toward the sound of an engine overhead—the Pan Am Clipper making an arc in the air. He wanted most of all to probe her feelings about her husband, her children, though, in another sense, he was afraid to know. Life in the years since he’d known her had been unkind, that much was visible on her person, but he thought some essential vitality in her had not been scrubbed away. They watched together in silence as the seaplane descended and cleaved the river. The richest families in Europe flew aboard the Clipper, soaring out of Lisbon with only a refueling stop in the Azores between a darkened Europe and a still-bright New York.
“I want a ticket for that plane,” she said.
M took this for a joke. “It’s good to dream, isn’t it?”
The wake settled until the expanse of the Tejo was smooth as a playing field.
“That’s not something you could get?” she said. “Not even the secret police?”
M ate with Paulo in the Baixa, at a place where Paulo knew the owners and never paid them. Paulo was incredulous. How could a chambermaid, a butcher’s wife, a mother to a brood of rats, believe she was worth an extravagance like the Pan Am Clipper?
“Are there not enough young girls wandering the docks you could have for a few escudos?” Paulo said. “Not enough abandoned foreign women who would give you their bodies for a promise you don’t even need to keep? I understand the inflation of wartime economies, but is this now the going rate for a chambermaid?”
Paulo hove through octopus tentacles with his knife and fork until not even a charred sucker remained.
“Steerage class on a passenger ship would suffice,” M said. “Perhaps you could arrange that for her?”
“I see it now,” Paulo said. “She wants to escape, and you want it too—after you’ve taken all you need from her. Send her away before she extorts you. She’ll be penniless across the ocean, and you won’t have to hear the screams of whatever beastly infant you put inside of her.”
Paulo would root like this in the mud until he found an explanation he could tolerate. M might have argued—in fact, he wished to—but that would require revelations about his history, his family, his childhood, even the lifetime poverty of his romantic engagements, and Paulo was not, in any sense, a man he wished to confide in. Paulo wasn’t listening in any case. He was standing to acknowledge two men entering the restaurant.
The pair looked tanned, at ease, like holiday sunbathers. One was a lackey to the German ambassador, and the other worked in the Reich’s propaganda shop on Rua do Carmo. M offered his greetings, but he did not remain standing, and for this Paulo gave him a brief, chastising look. Across the restaurant, an American in wire-frame glasses and a tweed suit watched the Germans intently. The American worked for a Jewish refugee committee on a northern stretch of the Avenida da Liberdade. Where else in Europe could such a constellation of interests sit for a late dinner, one table pushed so close to another? Paulo called it civilized. M suspected there were better words for it.
Among the advantages M gained by his work, the finest was his occasional access to the home of a bank president who spent most of the summer at his estate in Estoril. The house was in the embassy district, with gardens spilling down to a tiled terrace with views of the river where the ships came in. Lisbon often seemed to M like a city built for looking at itself, a city of hills competing to offer the sense of meaning and purpose that one gets from collecting a great hive of activity beneath one’s eyes. Nowhere was this more true than inside the banker’s palace, above the city lights—perhaps the last city in Europe where there was no need of blackout curtains, where neon advertisements burned and spotlights shone all night to illuminate the castle.
M dismissed the servants for the evening and browsed the collection of records. He selected a plaintive American jazz singer, and listened to the woman’s voice moan through the space. He fondled furniture that was so modern and spare that he was afraid to sit down in the rectilinear chairs. He handled crystal-etched glasses from the bar before the maid arrived, to ensure that he could hold them familiarly.
She came to the door in a frock, with a bandaged wrist. She took no apparent notice of the soulful music, and did not seem impressed by the city below, or was too tired to pay it any attention.
He coaxed her to detail, with the utmost specificity, what she’d learned of the French couple. He insisted to her that anything she’d seen could become the information that he most needed. She behaved like a student called before the class, pinpricked by his questions.
“Why don’t you sit?” he said.
“I’ll be too tired to stand again.”
“Are you really so eager for home?” he said.
He could all but see the children waiting for her, hanging off of her body, fighting each other while her head ached. Three girls and a boy, and only the boy hers. The girls were the issue of the widowed butcher she’d married. The butcher’s mother watched the children while the maid worked.
He could tell she was getting up her courage, waiting for his questions to end. When they did, all she could come up with were the words themselves—“Pan Am Clipper.ˮ
“New York City,” M said. “You would go alone?”
She hesitated. M could have revealed that her husband was a drunk who frequented dockside prostitutes. But she was observant enough—that fact was unlikely to have escaped her.
“Your child,” M asked. “The boy. What’s his name?”
“Do the secret police really know so little?” she said. “The shoeshine boys know more than you.”
“I’m asking”—M paused—“as a friend.”
“A friend would already know his name,” she said.
M could not bear her standing before him any longer, fidgeting and wishing to be out of his company. He rose abruptly, wished her goodnight. She seemed surprised to find herself released, but did not waste any time going.
In the Largo do Camões, M passed the maid’s information on to Paulo—the French couple may not be French at all, and in private they spoke English to one another. They possessed one case of belongings between them, and in it were British passports, possibly forgeries. They emerged from their room only for dinner, the man always in the same coat and tie. The wife studied the papers in Portuguese with her face only three or four centimeters from the print, pausing to cut her husband’s food into small bites and assist him in lifting his shaking fork to his mouth. After dinner, the couple took an evening stroll along the Avenida da Liberdade. A few nights ago, in a café, they met with a document forger and made a payment on behalf of an adult child who was in hiding somewhere in the Côte d’Azur. They otherwise received no letters or telegrams, placed no phone calls, conferred with no one in the hotel lobby, and paid no attention to the other guests.
“She’s a watchful little girl,” Paulo said. “I would hope she is not watching you so vigilantly.”
“This seems a case where German vitriol clouds their thinking,” M said.
“I’ll put it to the Captain,” Paulo said.
“All the way to him?” M said.
“You should feel proud,” Paulo said.
Paulo sometimes flattered M by saying his information was famous throughout the PVDE, but M never imagined his work reaching so high as the head of the agency.
“You have her travel papers?” M asked.
Paulo opened a valise and drew out a sheaf he waved beneath M’s nose.
“You pester me with this,” Paulo said. “Her bedroom favors must be extraordinary. Perhaps I will pay her a visit before she goes.”
M examined the ticket carefully. Passage aboard a steamer departing the next week out of Porto. The work might pass a novice’s eye, but company inspectors exposed far superior forgeries many times daily.
“Of course it’s a fake,” Paulo laughed. “She wishes to be free of her obligations in Lisbon, so give her a few escudos and send her off to Porto. What do you care if she’s left on the pier? She’ll be too far to cause you any trouble.”
M asked the maid to meet him at a hilltop overlook above a convent, with the central squares of the city far below. He hoped the beauty of the vista would spill over onto her sight of him. Instead she arrived out of breath, already angry with him.
“They’re so old,” she said. “What do they have left to give? What more is there for me to tell you?”
“They’re Jewish, correct?” M asked.
“Is that what it is?” she asked.
“Everyone in the hotel is wealthy,” she said.
She turned to face him directly, a stance she usually avoided. She had a look of slight, rationed emaciation, like she needed a year of rest and hot meals to return to her best figure. Her features were so sharp her face could be covered over by a sheet and he would still be able to see precisely what she looked like from the outline of the fabric.
She said, “I’ve heard the Germans bundle people together like sticks and set them all on fire. Women and children, too. Do you know that?”
Rumors about the German conduct of the war were rife in the city, especially among the poor. The poor seemed to have a kind of species memory for disaster. They registered the vibrations of atrocities committed even hundreds of miles distant.
“I’ve heard all of the stories that you have,” M said.
He walked with her as far as the Rua dos Remédios, dangerously close to the butcher’s shop. She lived on the Beco do Espírito Santo, where facing balconies leaned together so closely that neighbors could link hands from across the street. Her father had been a fisherman, and M’s father built boats—that was the trade M apprenticed to, and abandoned.
When M offered her the steamer ticket, she must have suspected the possibility of fraud, but she was unable to detect it. In a quiet voice, she thanked him. He’d wondered about this moment, because the passage was for her alone, but she did not ask for more. And this confirmation—that she truly intended to leave by herself—made M feel that there might be a space opening up for him. He took one of her scoured hands into his and waited for her to pull it away, but she left it. It felt like an expansion of himself, a new energy inside of him, something cellular. He felt like a deep-sea fish shocked into a bioluminescence that he did not know he possessed.
July was blistering, but the French couple huddled together as though it was a winter night. M tailed them from their hotel, passing the Teatro Nacional and up Avenida da Liberdade, where the couple paused to look in the picture windows of a car dealer, awed by the sleek machines. The day’s heat broke with a comforting wind from the Tejo, and they walked north as far as the Hotel Tivoli, where they took a late coffee with milk. They spoke only to the waiter. When M approached their table, the couple regarded him politely and without alarm. The wife invited him to sit.
“English? French?” M asked.
“We speak English,” the wife said. She stirred sugar into her husband’s coffee.
“But no Portuguese?”
“She speaks some of that too,” the husband said. “She has a gift for languages.”
The man’s eyes were difficult to regard—oceanic, you might say, with a stormed-tossed look of recent tears. His voice was lisping. He had a row of false bottom teeth, but the top was all gums.
The wife did most of the talking. M spoke in halting English about the summer in Lisbon, which he confirmed had been extraordinarily uncomfortable, even by the city’s own standards. They compared the virtues of the Café Suíça to those of the Café Chave d’Ouro. The couple were wary, but calm, and M sensed they had been accosted innumerable times before, in their exile and fleeing, by watchful and solitary men who approached them to inquire about their plans or their papers before scurrying off again into the night. The wife seemed to be deaf in one ear, but she had a practiced way of rotating her head toward whomever was speaking. The old couple gave M a strong impression of having outlived themselves, as though they had died a long time before and their bodies were being carried along on a current of habits.
In some sense they were the lucky ones—they’d reached neutral ground, with money enough for a room in a city where foreigners filled the hotels beyond capacity and often had to settle for coat closets or sections of basement. There were many others who spent down their money on forged visas or died waiting for passage across the Atlantic, scenes impossible to imagine before the war—men pushing into a last berth and leaving their families at the pier. But these two had one another. There was resistance, M thought, in their unfailing demeanor of care for one another.
“We toured Lisbon once before the war,” the wife said. “We enjoyed it greatly then.”
M was surprised to hear this, considering the dark and widowed city he remembered, a place of old women in black shrouds and cracked azulejos falling from the buildings.
“What did you enjoy?” M asked.
“The views mostly,” the husband said.
“Are you an artist? A painter?” M asked.
“Nothing like that,” the wife said.
“Lisbon seems to have painted itself,” the husband added.
M laughed. “You will learn that we Portuguese are easily flattered by the compliments of foreigners,” he said. “We hear them so rarely.”
He asked after their future plans, as though they were holiday makers on a grand tour of the Iberian Peninsula.
“Beautiful as you may find it, I would advise Lisbon is not a place for staying long,” M said.
The husband stiffened. The wife folded her hands on the table—bare hands, with no more rings to sell.
“Is there some place else you might recommend?” she said.
“Have you nowhere else to visit?” M asked.
“Somewhere else is always a nice thought,” the husband said. “There are seldom any problems elsewhere, are there?”
M stood. The wife stood with him.
“Please allow me to pay your bill,” M said. “You were very kind to indulge the conversation of a lonely man during your private time.”
The husband sank back in his chair. He rubbed his breastbone.
“Angina,” the wife said.
M’s taxi rattled through the Baixa, the grid of streets built after the great earthquake, roads that bore no trace of the bending pathways that existed before. At certain moments, Lisbon gave M the illusion that he was five hundred years old—as though he’d lived through every epoch along with the city, his memory stained with the place, the way centuries of soot collected on the tiles. In older quarters, the streets remained so tangled that residents could arrive home by any number of pathways. But let a disaster level everything, and those strange throughways and surprising entanglements were lost. When a mind was forced to make itself up all at once, every plan became straight and regular.
M asked the taxi driver to wait while he retrieved papers from his garret, and soon he was in the hills of Lapa, ringing the bell of the banker, who was lately returned from the coast. A drowsy servant led M into the same parlor where, days before, he’d listened to the maid recite her surveillance of the old couple. The banker wore his nightclothes. His browned face looked like it still retained the warmth of the sun. His eyes and teeth stood out distractingly white in comparison. He was not happy to receive a visitor at this hour.
M spoke quickly, without preliminaries: the banker had accepted in deposit a vast quantity of German gold, the loot of conquest. To hold that secret close would depend on the direction of the war, but most of all it would depend on the PVDE. M stated the price for his own secrecy, and the banker sat back in his chair and pulled at the sleeves of his nightshirt.
“And what am I to do with the next man of your kind who wants money for what he knows?” the banker said. “And the one after him?”
“It’s not unlikely,” M said.
“So, by paying you,” the banker said, “I only expose myself to more payments.”
“I have information to give you in return,” M said.
“For protection against the PVDE?”
“It regards the agency itself,” M said.
He handed the banker a collection of evidence against a high-level PVDE agent doing a brisk trade in double intelligence, informing to the Germans on internal matters of the Portuguese state, and selling information at the same time to the British. This was amid a host of other crimes, like embezzlement and contract murder, but it was betrayal the PVDE would not tolerate.
The banker looked into the documents. “Paulo Moreira?” he said. “Your friend Paulo?”
“I suppose,” M said.
It was an exorbitant sum M asked for, enough to buy a cabin on the Pan Am Clipper. But to a man of the banker’s wealth it was an annoyance—a fee, an excise tax. He likely would have paid it just to have M out of his sight.
The banker asked, “Won’t Paulo suspect that it is you who has informed on him?”
“Almost certainly, yes.”
“You think you are so powerful?”
“I think I don’t need to be,” M said. “I’ll be far away.”
“The Tarrafal prison is far away, too,” the banker said.
The maid stood in the entryway of M’s garret, only far enough to close the door behind her. She told him she’d gone to service the room of the old couple and found the bed pulled a foot from the wall, the drawers upended onto the floor. The chair in which the wife read the Portuguese papers had a tear in the upholstery of one arm, as though slit open with a knife. No one at the hotel would admit to having heard a sound. “What fight could they have put up?” she asked. Her voice wavered.
M told her, truthfully, that he had no foreknowledge of the couple’s removal. The possibilities, he said, were many. Perhaps the PVDE decided to apprehend the couple for questioning, or move them to safety. There was some chance the pair disappeared of their own accord, and staged a kidnapping as tradecraft. Of course, the explanation M found most plausible was that the Germans, grown weary of delay, abandoned their deference to local authorities and removed the pair themselves.
“I did advise them to move on,” M said. “I offered them that warning personally. At some risk to myself.”
She looked at the ground as M stepped closer to her. He grasped her gently at the elbow. Her arm went lifeless under his touch, but she did not pull it away. Had he ever pressed her, he suspected, she would have yielded. But those words—press, yield—were precisely what he did not want, for her to offer him her body the way she might cough into her hand.
“May I go?” she said.
He let go of her arm.
“I’m sorry that this matter concluded in such an unfortunate way,” M said. “But there’s no reason for what is between us to end.”
“Between us?” she said.
Her lips moved with small spasms. She had a large, recent burn up her forearm.
“Please,” he said, indicating the small table where he took his morning coffee and rolls.
“I’m going,” she said.
“You can go to Porto,” he said, “but the steamer ticket is a forgery.”
Her eyes reflected like glass.
“I have more to say to you,” he said. “Please.”
He poured wine from a bottle he’d acquired from the banker’s collection and slid the glass toward her. He wanted this moment to be consecrated as their true beginning, burying all of the unpleasantness that came before. He lay the Clipper ticket on the table.
“This is what I’ve arranged for us,” he said.
“For us,” she said.
“Even your boy, if you wish,” M said. “It’s a family cabin.”
She stared at the ticket in silence.
“He hates me,” she said.
“Your own child?”
“It’s his avó he loves,” she said. “That woman has never said a kind word to me.”
She took the wine and drank it in one long swallow and poured another glass to the rim and drank that, too. She crossed the room to his bed, where she began to undo her dress, not as a tease, but like she was alone and unobserved. She abandoned her undergarments in the same way. Pulling back the sheet, she crawled into his narrow bed, leaving beside her an empty space. All the nights since M had re-encountered her, he had turned himself over on that hard mattress, wishing for her presence beside him. But he did not move toward her.
“Beatriz,” he said. “Beatriz—do you really not know me? Not in all this time?”
“Know you?” Her voice was small, as though it reached him from a great distance.
“I am Martim,” he said. “Your father fished in Cascais. Our mothers, on market days….” He trailed off. Beatriz lay in his bed, staring at his sloped ceiling. Her mouth was closed as tight as a knot.
“I don’t know you,” she said finally. “I don’t know you at all.”
“You do,” he said. “At the festas. You and all of your sisters. I was there, too. No one to remember. A little boy. But I was there.”
Beatriz sat up to study him, as though trying to peel away the years from his face. The sheet fell away from her breasts, and she made no movement to cover her nakedness. She’d nursed a child, and her stomach was scarred by an unnatural delivery, but these only made her more beautiful to him—she was not untouched by the world, and neither was he. They’d raised children, only to find them estranged, and they’d made unfortunate marriages, the kind which revealed how little reprieve there is to be found anywhere for loneliness. He imagined they could offer each other a measure of understanding that younger lovers always lacked.
He lifted her crumpled dress from the floor and laid it on the bed.
“Do you really not know it, Beatriz?” he said quietly. “My love for you? I never could have helped that couple. Never. They were beyond help. But I thought I might help you.”
“Love,” she said it to herself, and then again, louder. “Love? A squealer for the PVDE? A man who follows me day and night until I am afraid to look out my windows? Weeks of torment with questions that never end—and all so two old people could be….” She couldn’t finish the thought. “I’ve begged to a God I don’t believe in that I be left alone,” she said. “You call it love?”
She began to laugh. It was a horrible sound. He felt the spear travel through his back, along the vertebrae.
“Beatriz,” he said.
She crawled from his bed and gathered her underclothes. When she was dressed, she snatched the Clipper ticket from the table.
“Should I sell this fake to some other stupid woman?” she said.
“It’s real,” he said. “It’s the truth.”
Ticket in hand, she looked prepared to fight him to the door—hands up, legs tense—and the sight made him hang his head. For this, he’d handed the banker a lease on his life. But words were duplicitous things, maybe his more than most, and to demonstrate to Beatriz that his confession was true, he stood aside from her path. The old woman who cleaned the landings often left the stairs soaking wet, and he heard Beatriz struggle to hold her footing as she ran down. He listened to every footfall on every stair until she reached the ground floor. He opened his window and watched her hurry up the dark street. When she was gone, there were tram bells and prowling cats and one confused rooster. He wanted to think that in some other world he was a boatbuilder on the shores of Cascais, and Beatriz was not a chambermaid, only his companion, swimming vigorously in the ocean, her skin browning and deepening, her dark hair resisting the intrusion of any tints. On feast days, at leisure, they would drift back and forth on the beach between Cascais and Estoril, free as the holiday makers to waste a little money in the casino, and at day’s end they would stiffen themselves up with drinks, and fall into a pleasing bed beneath a wood-beamed ceiling, and kiss until their mouths were dry and legs were trembling. He wanted most of all to be beside her when the fever of early love broke and a contemplative and fulfilled ease took its place, one in which they consecrated all the ordinary things together—when she cracked the eggs and he scrambled them, when they shared coffee at midmorning, when they sat beneath an ancient tree above the shoreline where they were raised, and all the temporary life streaming by them seemed endless and ecstatic.
Casey Walker is the author of the novel Last Days in Shanghai.