Landing in Faro by plane in the late morning, and expecting to leave again on a bus in the early afternoon, I instead stayed for more than twenty four hours, and it was in this Portuguese town that I started thinking about someone I hadn’t seen in more than three years, a woman I had said goodbye to at Edinburgh airport and who had flown into this coastal town feeling the place was an appropriate metaphor for her emotional desolation. Maria had arrived in Faro in the evening before getting the bus the next day back home to Lisbon. She had taken some pictures, sent them on to me, and said a few warm words in the email that I didn’t deserve to receive, and there I was years later in Faro too, feeling maybe no less devastated than Maria, but ready to travel east to see Marion in Seville.
But it wasn’t a town easy to escape, as I got the airport bus into the centre, went into the bus station and tried to order a ticket for a bus that afternoon, I was told I needed to book in advance but that the ticket office was closed all weekend. It was Sunday. I would have to wait till the following morning. I wandered around the town for an hour looking for somewhere to stay; and booked into a hostel about five minutes from the bus station, a hostel that advertised itself with two flags, one Portuguese; one Danish. The woman who opened the door was what we would call a bundle of energy and it did indeed appear that the energy was bundled, like a golf ball made up of hundreds of elastic bands tightly knotted together. She had an energetic density, and when a minute later her husband came out of a room into the foyer, it was like watching stillness versus motion. His every gesture seemed exhausted, yet his attitude ironic, as if he understood that movement was what human beings did because they didn’t know how to be still. Yet it was obvious that the place ran at all because of the wife’s bustle, though I would find out later that the place was successful perhaps more because of the husband’s lazy wistfulness.
After booking in, I went for a walk around the town and out by the marina and thought about the pictures Theresa had taken of the very places I was now seeing, and saw them with eyes more attuned emotionally to what they were expressing than when I first opened the attachment years before. Was I now not feeling what she would have been feeling then? In the town where the serpentine streets protected me from the wind I felt a dulled tranquillity, while when I walked by the marina I was caught by a blustery force. The contrast brought to mind the couple running the hostel.
Looking for a restaurant and, discovering only a few places open and serving mainly meat dishes, I noticed a corner shop more inclined to cater to my vegetarian needs and bought some pasta, some sauce and a packet of salad: the couple had told me the kitchen was free to use, and I wanted to eat simply.
When I arrived back at about seven thirty I expected to see other people preparing food in the kitchen, but there was only the couple, cutting up some veg to accompany what smelled like a pork roast in the oven. I asked about the other guests, saying I didn’t want to intrude on their dinner if I happened to be the only other person using the kitchen, and they said I was their only guest that evening: that a handful of people had booked out earlier that day, and Sunday nights were often quiet out of season. They asked if I would join them for dinner, and I discerned a frown on the wife’s face, but not on the husband’s, when I said I was vegetarian and would cook off some pasta. Well at least I would join them at the table, she said. Of course I replied, thanking her.
They were both fluent in English, and, as we sat at the long dining table that would have space for ten, the wife asked me lots of questions, but it was the husband who looked like he was much more interested in the answers. As she enquired where I was from, what work I did, even how old I happened to be, so it was as though the husband was listening to find out more about me, while the wife asked questions attending to another social situation. How many guests must have passed through this hostel since they had opened in 1975 (according to the sign outside), and how many times had she asked the same questions, and yet how often had the husband received answers that would have kept him listening?
As I asked a few questions back I realized there were questions I was entitled to ask and others that I wasn’t as I saw again that look of disapproving surprise cross the woman’s visage, and I would ask instead another question about the hostel rather than risk encroaching on their personal lives. For example when I wondered what they did before they owned the hostel; what their children did; or whether they often went back to Denmark, I would receive the briefest of unhappy looks. But when I asked about the nationalities most likely to stay there; when they had built the extension; where they had picked up some interesting pieces of furniture, her face, which had clouded over during the inopportune enquiries, allowed the sun to come out, and threw out some conversational rays before retreating behind the next cloud when a question appeared inappropriate. Throughout the dinner, though, the husband’s face remained impassive yet constantly curious. Nothing quite excited him; yet nothing quite bored him. He looked like a man who would talk when he had something to say, and maybe the luxury of having for a wife a woman who would talk like a radio playing in the background was that he could choose his words much more carefully, and listen out for any comments that might intrigue him. After dinner I enquired about the shower, and afterwards sat in the sitting room where on this cold, March evening the wife had lit the wood burning stove. After a while the husband came through and asked if I wanted to go for a beer downstairs. As I said yes I mused over whether this was a regular offer he made to guests to escape from his wife for an hour in the evening, whether he would have gone on his own anyway, or whether I was someone whom he found of interest. His wife had mentioned over dinner that they had been to Scotland a couple of times many years ago, and after initially taking me for an Englishman as he took my passport number, he had apologized when he asked where I was from and I said Edinburgh. Did he want to reminisce?
It has often been a problem I’ve found when travelling, where conversations take place on the general level of national assumption, more than personal revelation, with much of the conversation predicated on explaining the nature of the place one is from over one’s own personal nature, and if I hadn’t noticed a sense of curiosity that appeared to be based on the specifics of personality, rather than national characteristics, I might have declined the offer. Yet I felt surprisingly complicit with this man I had known for only several hours, and didn’t only accept the drink but looked forward to it, especially when he said enigmatically that maybe we would have time to look under the bonnet of things.
The bar was only a few feet from the front door, on the other side of a street too narrow for cars, and it felt as if we had hardly gone out at all. The bar was deep and not wide, and the bar woman greeted him with familiarity and me with surprise, as if she were used to the husband coming in on his own, and wondered who this young man with him happened to be. It was around ten and the bar was half full, and we took the drinks to the back of the bar and sat down. The music was low, filling the air with enough ambience for our chat to be private without either of us struggling to hear the other one, and I found it easy to ask some of the questions that I had half-asked earlier that evening. You seem to know Scotland a little I proposed, and he said he did indeed and had vague yet also vivid memories of Edinburgh and the area around Loch Ness. Memories are interesting he said: we can’t draw them like a map but we can draw from them as if from a well. As the reader may have noticed, I have the habit of trying to conjure up situations with the aid of metaphor and simile, but I feel I offer them functionally, as if useful as explanation without quite aspiring to literature. The husband’s remark about memory was rich; suggestive, literary, and perhaps the story he told me that evening was literature too. We talked for about ten minutes of other things, and then, when I asked him again about how he and his wife met, he started to tell me a little about his life.
When he was twenty three, he finished his engineering degree in Copenhagen and had always told himself that the course was less an opportunity for security (as his parents insisted) than for adventure (as he convinced himself). As he was being taught about stress and structure, about foundations and forces, so he would absorb the information diligently but wistfully too, with the idea that the bridges he would build, the hospitals he would put up, the schools he would be involved in building, would be in parts of the world where he had never been. His family was not well-off, and he had never travelled beyond Scandinavia: soon he would travel wherever he liked. Not long after graduating he got a job that took him to Argentina (he spoke some Spanish and would become fluent), and he stayed for three years working on a school, a hospital and municipal swimming baths, before the political situation forced him to make a decision: to stay and become implicated in the regime that would be paying his wages, or get involved with an underground movement that was resistant to the new military junta. He chose instead to leave, undecided whether he was a coward or politically modest, someone who didn’t want to get involved or knew that his involvement would be token and that the struggle was not his. At least he didn’t stay and take a wage from the government, even though they offered him a better salary when he announced to them he was going to work in another country. The few friends he had made in Buenos Aires seemed to respect what he had done: they said that he was making a statement enough by getting out of the country, the military hadn’t bought him off, and if everyone with the skills the government needed were to leave, the junta would collapse much more quickly than through any underground activity they were practising. Perhaps they were right, but he felt like he was running away, though less so when he managed after working elsewhere in Latin America for a couple of years to find work in Chile, where it seemed the country was pushing towards a radical democracy: about a year after arriving, the socialist Salvador Allende came to power, and the fantasies he possessed while studying became tangible dreams as he felt like he was part of building a country’s infrastructure.
But of course this revolution did not last long; Allende was replaced by Pinochet, and once again he was given the chance to stay and work under a military dictatorship, or to leave. So he left. He went to the States and worked for a while in California, helping build a new school for Latin American immigrants. Whilst there he met a few people who were returning to Spain after hearing of Franco’s death: instead of moving out of countries to escape dictatorship, why not move to a country that had just been released from one? So he moved again. It was while there, in Barcelona, he met a woman who was his age, in her early thirties, and someone who had been in Argentina, Chile as well as Spain, and was involved in all three countries in underground activities. She worked generally as a school teacher but her purpose was to seek change in the countries where she lived, and she had returned to Spain in 1974, the year before Franco’s death. The affinity between them was perhaps more factual than ideological: they had lived in the same places but not quite for the same reasons, and they even wondered whether they might have seen each other on some street in Santiago or Buenos Aires. Maybe she was too plain for him to notice her, she wondered one evening in bed not long after they had started sleeping together, and he didn’t know how to answer: Angela was attractive but not a beauty, and as he would look at her in the following few days after her remark, he saw that her skin was clear and smooth, her eyes large and welcoming, her nose well-shaped and her lips full. But everything she did revealed her honesty rather than hid her mystery. She was too open a book to be seductive, and he was sure someone might facetiously have proposed that the book were a pamphlet: Mao’s red book, Marx’s the Communist Manifesto. He admired her but he never quite fell in love with her, and he knew this clearly when he met Theresa with some engineering friends in a bar in the old barrio, and what he could only describe as her indirectness fascinated him. She spoke as if everything she said could be as false as it could be true, and while the others confirmed she was Portuguese, nobody knew quite what she was doing in Barcelona, nor when she had left Portugal. Some would say she followed a man, another that she had come looking for her father who had deserted her mother when she was a child, another that she had tried to make a living as an actress in Madrid, failed, and came up to Barcelona where she was living at leisure on small private income.
That first night when he looked at Theresa he was reminded of Angela’s self-appraisal: her remark that he wouldn’t have noticed her on the streets of Buenos Aires of Santiago even if they had passed each other. He knew Theresa would never make such a remark, and if she did it would have been false modesty more than an accurate insight. It was as though her personality, her personal history, was irrelevant next to the impression that she made on people, and her purpose was to sustain impressions, not reveal who she happened to be.
Within months Theresa and he became lovers, and a year after that she wondered if with her personal savings and the money he was making, they could move to Portugal and open a guest house. She was bored in Barcelona, she said, and homesick. That summer they drove along the Portuguese coast looking for a small hotel they could buy, and that was when they found the one across the road, he said, pointing out the pub door. He said it without pride and instead with a tone of deflation. For another fifteen years after they bought it he continued working on engineering projects, but he did so not for his own dream but for Theresa’s: the guest house was twice as big now as when they bought it. He retired early to help Theresa run it, and they made enough money for him to retire early.
During those first ten years he was still fascinated by Theresa as she still remained a mystery, and he never met her family, with Theresa insisting that she was brought up by an aunt in Porto, who had long since passed away. Yet it was after around ten years that he was working on a project in Porto and he tried to find out more about Theresa, based on the little information he assumed was fact and not fiction: the info on her passport, and a comment that instigated the inquiry. Someone he was working with said that when he was young his sister had entered a beauty contest but knew even before she had entered it that she wouldn’t win: she had heard that the town stunner had decided to enter, and the result was inevitable. He asked more about who this stunner happened to be, and it became clear to him that the person was surely Theresa. The co-worker added that it wasn’t only that she was beautiful that would lead to the girl winning, though nobody denied that beauty, it was also that she was the lover of the son of a leading general in the city, a young man known to get his own way, and all the more so that he was the son of a general in a military dictatorship. Theresa duly won the contest, in time the military dictatorship came to an end under the revolution, and Theresa disappeared, taking with her a sum of money that the general’s son had transferred into her account as he tried to distance himself from his father’s actions, and his father’s corrupt wealth.
He returned to the Faro guest house, asked whether what he had heard about her in Porto was true, and Theresa did not deny it. Indeed she broke down and said that she never told him because was he not likely to leave her? Did he not often talk about his own albeit compromised attempts to be politically judicious, to respect those who had fought against tyranny rather than benefited from it? When he went way again, this time working on a project in Madrid, he did not return to Faro afterwards, but instead went north to Barcelona, to see again Angela. He had not directly contacted her since he started seeing Theresa, but through friends he still knew he found out where she lived and telephoned her. She answered the phone. He knew her voice instantly; it was a voice that was harsh and forceful, as if always pushing towards a truth, a value, a meaning. He would remember it sometimes when he would talk to Theresa as she would use her soft, cajoling and playful voice to avoid confronting the very things Angela would seek out. Over the years, and especially when he confronted Theresa over her past, he longed for a more strident and direct tone, perhaps as one wishes for bitter flavours after too much sugar. He told her who it was, that he was in Barcelona, and could they meet up. She said she would have some time the following afternoon; would he still be in the city? He said he would, and as he put the phone down after this briefest of conversations, he was surprised. When they had parted, he admitted that he loved another woman, and she said that if this was his choice she would not try and persuade him otherwise. He didn’t know whether her reaction was bitter or pragmatic, and the people he knew who knew her said that she had never talked about it. She concentrated on politics, they said, but wasn’t that what she was doing before she met him and when they were together? It wasn’t that he didn’t mean much to her, he surmised, but that politics meant much more.
This was confirmed when they met the next day, and much of their conversation in a strip-lit cafe in the old Barrio where they drank sugary mint tea, and gypsy flamenco played noisily from the speakers, was less emotional than political. They did not talk about his emotional betrayal, his love for another woman over her, but instead about Theresa, as he asked Angela about Portuguese politics at the end of the sixties and the early seventies. She said she knew a few people who were revolutionaries during this period, and said that Theresa wouldn’t have been oblivious to the oppression, but that perhaps her identity couldn’t help but identify with it. He asked her what she meant by this, and Angela believed that sometimes she thought politics was chiefly a conflict between cosmetics and meaning, between those who want to live on the surface of the world, whatever its miseries, and others to engage with its inner workings. By analogy, she said, some people like to drive fast cars; others like to know how a car can reach such speeds. He didn’t think it was a fair analogy, but couldn’t ignore some of its implications in relation to his own life either. Wasn’t Theresa a woman whom he wanted like a car he could proudly drive, rather than a vehicle whose bonnet he would look under? Even when he was working in Argentina and Chile, he might not have sided with oppression, but he didn’t care to investigate the nature of it either: he simply left.
He talked with Angela for a couple of hours, and as she said she needed to go, he asked her, beseechingly, why she had been with him at all. The question perhaps surprised him more than it surprised her. A decade earlier he would have thought it was obvious why she was with him – he was attractive, warm, financially comfortable and robustly healthy – but now all he could see of his former self was wretched superficiality. She said what might well have been the first ambivalent comment she had ever offered to him: she said that as an engineer she hoped that he might eventually want to start looking under the bonnet of things.
He returned to Faro the following day, and, seeing how relieved Theresa was to see him, said that they were more alike than he realized: they both didn’t care to look under the bonnet of things. She looked understandably puzzled and yet not at all curious, and he muttered to himself exactly this phrase again and again as he hugged her. They deserved each other, he thought, but he also wanted to start trying to look a little under things and not only at them. Later that evening as Theresa cooked dinner he could see she was still a beautiful woman, more attractive now than Angela would have been ten years earlier, but that he could not expect from her in the future the beauty she would steadily lose and the mystery that was robbed from her in a casual remark made in Porto. What she became, he said to me, was what I would have seen, and he suspected, he added, if she had asked me to spend an evening talking and drinking I would have declined. But thirty years ago she would have been a source of some fascination, though she was no more interesting then than she is now. But our appeal to the cosmetic would have been much more easily satisfied.
I didn’t know what to say, but I replied by suggesting that maybe the hypothesis could be played out in the present, and that my own dilemma wasn’t so different from his and that maybe many of us have choices not unlike the one he faced.
I told him I was in Faro on my way to Seville, to meet a woman who was also beautiful and mysterious, and whose beauty was undimmed and her mystery still unknown, but that I had never quite felt myself in her company, and this created a feeling that was simultaneously excavating and desirous. The more I desired her the less I felt authentically me. Interestingly, though, in the process of making my way to Seville, I had stopped off in this town that three years ago an ex would have been alone in after visiting me in Edinburgh, and where at the end of the trip I had told her I didn’t want to be with her any longer. I cared for her but didn’t quite love her, and maybe now I would say she lacked the beauty I was seeking and the mystery I demanded. Maria had been transparently honest, hid nothing and tried if anything to find ways in which to speak more and more openly about herself and her feelings. She was not boring, but she was, I supposed, predictable, but maybe for no other reason that she refused to play unpredictable. A year or so afterwards she emailed me to say that she was still living in Lisbon, and if I were ever in the city (so many people at some point in their lives were), I should look her up. She attached her address.
About a year later I met Marion at a friend’s party. We said hello in the kitchen as she offered me a joint I declined, talked briefly about the drugs she liked to take and that I had never tried, and then she abruptly left the room and said she needed to dance, a decision I would later realize had been courtesy of a pill that she had popped beginning to take effect. I went through a while later and danced with others whilst watching her, and later in the kitchen as I drank some tea and prepared to leave, she came through with a couple of other friends, having found a tambourine and drums. She played the tambourine, another friend played the drums, and a third sang in a dry, cracked, throaty voice that yearned for a beauty her tambourine playing friend possessed. I didn’t ask for her phone number, believing that she was a friend of someone in the flat, and that I would see her again not long afterwards. But the next day, when I asked the friend who co-hosted the party with his flatmates, he admitted he had never seen her before, and wasn’t sure whose friend she happened to be – probably a friend of a friend – and I could see that the degrees of separation meant that if I were to see her once more it would be due to chance over engineering a situation.
But around six weeks later l did see her, working at a stall selling jewellery on the Royal Mile. As I stopped to look at the items I looked to see if she recognized me from the party. She gazed at me shrewdly and said she recalled me from one a few weeks earlier: I was a terrible dancer but one of the happiest people there she thought. I wondered if that made her unhappy, since she was easily the best dancer there. She couldn’t pretend she was closer to being a good dancer than being happy, and I asked if sometime she would like to teach me how to dance since I already seemed happy enough. She said that might be too much to ask, but if I wanted to take her for a drink she wouldn’t refuse. A few drinks could turn her into a cheerful person, she believed; it would take more than a few dance lessons to turn me into a decent mover. Her capacity for insult was often dependent on mood: a very good or a very bad one would make her quick and if she were up the insult would be benign; down malign.
Over the next year we would see each other often, sleep with each other when she was in the mood, and sometimes act as if were a couple when she was trying to be conventional, and like strangers if she thought a relationship was a conservative thing. Every couple of weeks she would go out without me and take some drugs and dance through till the morning. People would occasionally refer to us as an unlikely couple, and I would reply that we would have to be a couple first to pass for the unlikely. I never knew very much about Marion; I knew she was half-French, half Spanish, and that before coming to Edinburgh she had been in Seville where her mother and step-father lived. She had bobbed, black hair, a small upturned nose, green eyes and a petite frame, and a tattoo of a robin on her ankle. Whenever she would half-apologize for her attitude she would say she had gypsy blood and laugh, and I never knew whether she laughed because she thought it a cliché or that it was a lie, or both.
One afternoon she told me that she had booked a flight back to Spain and she was leaving in two weeks’ time. I was welcome to visit her whenever I liked, and when I protested that she should have at least told me she planned to leave, she said simply that she was never one to plan anything. I told her that I had no choice but to leave her that very day, and I didn’t see her before she left, but received an email from her a few days after she arrived in Seville, saying that she might have made a mistake and would I come out and visit her. She didn’t say whether the mistake lay in breaking up with me, or moving back to Seville, or both. I suppose I was to find out when I arrived.
He asked me how old I was and I said thirty two. His life was behind him, and mine ahead of me: I had a forking path in front that indicated hope; he had one behind him that indicated regret. He was in no position to give advice because he was wiser; only because he understood remorse. The question is, he said, did I want to look under the bonnet. I seemed to him to be someone who wasn’t easily taken in. Even as I described the woman I was going to see I was lucid about her personality, well aware of her failings, he said. The danger of spending our life with a merely beautiful woman is that we don’t get any more complex, and they soon lose their looks. Of course there are many beautiful women who remain attractive and intelligent, many that are much more interesting than the ugly men they find themselves marrying. But there is nothing to indicate that the woman he married, or the woman I was following to Seville, he said, would make us more engaged with the world than if we had been alone.
He asked me what happened to the person whom I knew before Marion, and I said I would say a few words about her if he could first of all explain to me why he had stayed with Theresa: he talked like a man who had no choice. At a certain moment, maybe we don’t, he said, or at least can’t see that we do. He stayed with her because she stayed with him: she was almost forty, they had no children though she had wanted them and he kept on saying maybe next year or the year after, maybe when he stopped travelling, and then it was almost too late. He said that they should try for a child, and he didn’t tell her that he wanted to leave afterwards; that he would leave her with money, the child and the guest house. But no child came, and he ended up staying, feeling that it was perhaps his fate.
I laughed and wondered whether his fate had been to warn young men who passed through Faro of how to escape their own. How many others had he warned, like a lighthouse guiding ships away from the rocks? We all have our similes don’t we, he smiled, however mixed our metaphors might become. He was alluding to his own remark about the bonnet, and I thought of Maria again and how she fine-tuned her feelings according to the company she was in. She wasn’t at all a weak personality, I said, but rather one who gained strength from feeling out situations and trying to understand both the people she was with and the feelings she possessed. Even when I told her we must part, she said it was a great shame, that we hadn’t explored what we had to give each other, like someone who knows they have to get the plane home the following day even though they still have most of a country still to see. Yet it was one the saddest remarks anybody had ever said to me, and after telling him this, I asked him when he knew that Theresa and he had nothing left to explore. He said it was worse than that; exploration never had much to do with their feelings for each other: it was based chiefly on sexual desire and physical admiration, on his part, and Theresa’s feeling that she was interesting and empowered by being with a wealthy engineer. Love is full of weak and useless feeling he said, but wistfully rather than bitterly, as if he knew that there was love that was full of other things as well.
As he said it was time for him to get some sleep, so we made our way across that narrowest of streets, up the stairs and into hostel. He waved me goodnight as though I had merely asked for directions, and said that maybe he would see me in the morning. I thought that unlikely, that I would deliberately leave early and he would intentionally stay in bed. Maybe what we had was a certain type of one-night stand, a conversational intimacy that could not survive breakfast.
The next morning I did awake early, and not even Theresa was up to see me go. At the bus station I looked at the timetable and saw there wouldn’t be a bus to Seville until twelve, but there was one leaving for Lisbon in twenty minutes. Should I go to Seville where a woman who invited me recently would be, even though the invite seemed half-hearted, or rather like a half-moon, half revealing, half-eclipsed, or should I go to Lisbon, where a woman whose invite into her life three years earlier had been whole-hearted, or perhaps whole-mooned, with no deliberate aim at obscurity. We find our metaphors where we can, I thought, as I tossed a coin to decide where I should go, with the arbitrariness of the gesture somehow feeling like the greatest choice I might ever make.