A sort of day…

 

Morning: Barbershop Man

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As I go down the stairs of my exercise club, I notice a new poster: a fit-looking young woman in gym singlet and knee-length leggings is bending over backwards, so that both the soles of her feet and the palms of her hands (not to mention the end of her ponytail) are in contact with the floor. The legend is an uplifting ‘Acredita em algo mais’ (believe in something more). It isn’t clear in what, but I suspect in Wellness, or perhaps even in Better, which is what Sky TV recommends we Believe in. Anyway, one for the collection.

An hour or two later, I am at my hairdresser’s for a much-needed haircut. It is a minuscule place inside a small, old-style shopping centre. There are three chairs where you have your hair cut, and two which lean right back so your hair can be washed in a basin and your scalp get a free massage while you nearly go off to sleep. There is also a coat-stand, a tiny counter for bookings and payments, an awful little padded bench strewn with magazines, and a desk affair where manicures are done by a fat Brazilian girl with false eyelashes. It is so crowded that people are always getting in each other’s way and dropping things.

I enjoy being here. My hairdresser Teresa is a lady-like, quietly-spoken Portuguese who says little as she goes about her work; the other two are gay Brazilians (one of whom wears his hair in a little ponytail which he’s twenty years too old for), and the general atmosphere is chatty, gossipy, friendly, mildly camp, occasionally raucous. I am mostly ignored, content to sit and smirk. For what I pay here (ten euros), I would otherwise have to go to a low-end men’s barbershop, where I would get no hair-wash and a terrible haircut (straight Portuguese barbers don’t seem to know anything about hair), and would have to endure at least half an hour – probably more, counting the wait – of old-school masculine conversation à portuguesa. I used to go to such places in my first few years in Portugal, and I doubt they’ve changed much (a few weeks ago my son went to a fashionable one in Lisbon called Figaro’s, and his girlfriend wasn’t allowed inside to sit and wait for him.)

In the traditional Portuguese barbershop, people’s clothes smell of stale cigarette-smoke. There is silence, the steady snip of scissors, the occasional sharp hum of electric clippers, desultory chat. Occasionally one of the barbers will pause, clippers in one hand and comb in the other, and say something ponderous. He will be a male type found disproportionately often in Portuguese barber’s, either as the barber himself or as a customer: middle-aged, more opinionated than knowledgeable, completely lacking any ironical sense of himself, bluff of manner but basically humourless, given to holding forth on football and politics.

I met one or two bores like this when I first came to Portugal. My first wife, who worked for a Portuguese company, would be invited to dinner at someone or other’s house and I would go along as her partner. Such dinners would begin with four or five males standing in a circle at one end of the sitting-room, holding glasses of whiskey and talking about Benfica, or in some households about Sporting Lisbon. Other subjects might be the latest conspiracy theory (Portuguese males are partial to these) or a meal someone had recently eaten, but discussion of other topics was not common. When we arrived I would join this  group, rocking gently on my heels, smiling, nodding, studying the ice in my glass, laughing at jokes I half-understood, wool-gathering – and would mostly be left in peace, while I glanced wistfully at the cackling women getting tipsy at the other end of the room, comfortably sat on sofas and in armchairs (the upright phase of a dinner could easily go on for the best part of an hour.) However, if Barbershop Man was present, I could forget about being left in peace: Barbershop Man does not converse but holds forth contentiously, expecting full attention, and if any slackening of my own was sensed behind my increasingly fixed smile, my upper arm would be touched insistently (I dislike this), or in extreme cases grasped firmly (I like this even less), to restore me to a sense of my social duty.

And now there is in fact a touch on my shoulder: I have been daydreaming and the haircut is done. Teresa carefully lifts off the nylon hair-dresser’s shroud, turns through a few degrees to shake out the loose hair-cuttings, and plies her outsize shaving-brush to clean me off around the neck and shoulders. I stand, thank her and pay at the little counter by the door.

 

Afternoon: a bit of fish       

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Later, I am at the fish counter in our local Pingo Doce[1]. I have come for a bit of fish for my supper (Veronica is away), and am waiting to be served. I have been waiting a minute or so, which doesn’t sound too bad on Pingo Doce’s part, until you consider that I’m the only one at the counter. I have taken a ticket to be on the safe side, and have been waiting for the lady to officially notice me. I know she knows I’m here, but her back is firmly turned while she gets on with some job she has to do. I am reminded of the waiter’s epitaph[2]. If this was in a TESCO or a Sainsbury’s she’d turn with an empty, well-trained smile, and that singsong intonation they have, and say something like “Good afternoon, sir, sorry to keep you, I’ll be with you in a moment” (though even in a posh place like Waitrose she wouldn’t have authorisation to use the modern and very irritating “bear with me, please”, which is restricted-use for people who answer the phone.)

Anyway and be that as it may, I might as well be a fish myself for all the attention I’m being paid here.

However, there’s no great rush, I still have to choose what fish to buy. I am no expert on fish. There are lots of bream-shaped ones on the slab, mostly silvery, though there’s a quite pretty one called a salema which has yellow stripes along its body (only three euros fifty the kilo, but we’ve had it before and it wasn’t great). The usual diagonal-cut sections of scabbard-fish, lots of colourful little tiddly ones that will be full of bones, a few laughably overrated and overpriced salmonetes, a couple of gormless-looking monkfish, very dead and sorry for themselves with their prognathous lower lips and wide toothy mouths, and their little fishing-poles keeled-over and stuck against their heads. It looks like it’s going to be the usual salmon-steak or  dourada[3] again, though the eyes of the douradas are a bit filmed-over, giving them that seedy, morning-after look which  means they aren’t fresh. I see this look in the mirror from time to time.

After another few moments, I say “Good afternoon”.

She turns her head a couple of degrees, no more, and says “Just a moment” (we are speaking Portuguese, of course.)

I am slightly taken aback by the offhand tone, but wait another half-minute and try again. This time she sounds quite irritated, but after a second turns and approaches the counter, in her gleaming white overalls, gauntlets and wellington boots. She is a stodgy, pale woman of about forty.

I smile winningly and say “Good afternoon” again. She regards me implacably, but after a second or two is able to say “Good afternoon” herself.

Knowing I am committing a basic error, but unable to stop myself, I ask: “Are the douradas fresh? Their eyes look a bit filmy.”

What happens next is hard to describe. The fish-lady doesn’t lift her shoulders, turn her palms upward, or pull down the corners of her mouth like a grouper. Her eyebrows remain unraised, her lower lip unpursed, her chin, unprojected, remains in the default position. And yet she clearly shrugs, in a way I have never seen before, not even in Portugal (where the shrug is reputed to have been invented), and she does it without moving a single muscle. I am fascinated. I watch her steadily, begin to feel rebellious, and once again cannot help myself.

“Sorry, is this a bad time?” I ask. “I can come back when it’s more convenient.”

I’m sure she does the invisible shrug again, or maybe it’s a continuation of the same shrug. Did the first one ever come to an end? Is it a lifelong shrug, a life-style shrug, a continuous way of being? I am out of my depth.

“I’ll just have a salmon steak, please,” I say.

 

Evening: leave everything in the tank

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Since Veronica is away, I am able to indulge myself with an orgy of catch-up televised sport. There is a club rugby match, some cricket highlights, and a football match.

There is very little to report. The football match is Atletico Madrid against Arsenal , a Europa League semi-final which turns out exactly as everyone knew it would. Before the game, Arsene Wenger demonstrates the challenge which football clichés can present to even the most fluent foreign coach. He starts well, promising that his team will play ‘with the handbrake off’, but makes a cock of his next one, assuring his interviewer that ‘we will leave everything we have in the tank’ . I am still intermittently puzzling over this one when I give up on the game and try the cricket highlights. England don’t do very well and neither does the otherwise very good Ian Ward, who seems to have forgotten his algebra when he informs us that ‘for England to win the match, it’s a simple equation: ten wickets’.[4]

In the rugby match the referee is  a slight, sandy-haired figure, and very young. Most of the players are so much bigger they look as if they could eat him in a sandwich. And yet he controls them like a lion-tamer, warning, explaining and guiding players through his decisions; and these are respected right or wrong in a way which would be unthinkable in football, where referees are routinely jostled, pushed and hounded round the pitch by players having tantrums that would disgrace a four-year old. The ten-metres-back-for-dissent rule has something to do with this, and also the fact that rugby’s better calibration of punishments gives the ref the option of the sin-bin, making the yellow card a far more effective deterrent in rugby than in football (where the red card is almost never used for even gross dissent: not every ref has Michael Oliver’s courage). An alternative view might be that quite a few rugby players are relatively rational, recognisably human beings, while professional footballers tend to be overpaid, under-educated virtual halfwits (just look at the excruciating goal celebrations.) Personally, of course, I do not hold this view.

[1] Pingo Doce- a chain of high-street supermarkets

[2]  ‘God Finally Caught His Eye’.

[3] Apparently, gilt-head bream

[4] In fact, Wenger has mixed two clichés: 1. ‘to leave nothing out there on the pitch’, and 2. ‘to empty (or leave nothing in) the tank’.  I’m afraid I’m lying about the cricket quote, which was on another day entirely.

The daily grind 3: You’ve got to take your hat off to play like that.

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It is going to be another day of black, wet, gusty weather. It’s past nine-thirty, but as I wash up my breakfast things, the morning outside the glass kitchen doors is sombre enough for me to leave the kitchen light on.

When the washing-up is finished, there is nothing else to do.  I listen for a long minute or two, dish-cloth in hand, to the soft, close-grained pattering of the rain on the low roof above.

Aquarobics, breakfast and the washing-up are done, the dog’s been out, and there’s no point putting a wash on in this weather. Emphasising the point, the rain intensifies and the pattering quickly swells and deepens to a steady, packed roar. No supermarket shopping is going to get done either, not in this. I wring out the cloth, dry my hands, and walk through to the sitting-room, beyond whose west-facing french windows the rain is gusting and squallish, rattling on the glass like stones and battering the white blossom from our almond tree. On the terrace outside the door, raindrops are splashing white and high like hail, generating large bubbles which are borne for an instant on the water now pouring across the tiles and down the steps.

I pick up the book I’m reading, Heart of Darkness. I started it yesterday, having been meaning to read it for the last forty years, or whatever it has been since Apocalypse Now. Within five minutes I come across the following:

“Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you–smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute, with an air of whispering, Come and find out.” 

I find I can’t read this without hearing Swiss Toni, the car salesman from The Fast Show (“You know, Paul, colonising a vast continent is a little like making love to a beautiful woman”), and as I read on I am reminded time and again of his self-approving drawl:

‘’You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world–what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.”

Come to think of it, there might be a bit of Ray Mears in there too, having one of his earnest moments. Either way, I’m having a job taking Conrad’s damaged, raffish philosopher-adventurer as seriously as he takes himself, and this looks like another book, masterpiece or not, which I am going to abandon half-read.

This is becoming a bit of a habit. In the last fortnight I have given up on two, one called ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ and another called ‘Big Brother’. The second is apparently quite good, but there we are. It can be something quite small which makes me sicken, turn and run, as Seamus Heaney might put it. Many years ago I read Robert Ludlum novels (I can’t explain this) until one day, I came to the words “The door opened, and standing before me was quite simply”. They were at the bottom of a page, and I felt so ill at the thought, the sure knowledge, of how Ludlum would continue the sentence that I closed the book without turning the page, and never read a word by him again.  I also left in the middle of the last two films I saw in a cinema, and I did the same during a performance of the dreary and interminable La Traviata in Sydney Opera House a couple of years ago, though that was a case of not going back in after the interval (I had applauded enthusiastically, thinking it was the end, and had to be told there was more of it still to come.)

The rain has stopped and a cautious sun has come out.  In our small back garden there is a cheerful, omnipresent dripping and trickling and gurgling. Fat water-drops glisten, and a blackbird has started singing.

Coming back indoors, I switch on the television (we are able to receive British channels). I don’t know how last night’s football matches went, so I settle down to watch a re-showing of Manchester United versus Sevilla.  United are playing negative, leaden, clueless football, and as the game goes on the crowd become anxious and quiet, with Gary Neville taking a dim view of United’s ‘low energy levels’. (Appendix 1). At half-time I take the dog out again. Meanwhile, crafty Sevilla are happy to wait their chance, and sure enough they get it with twenty minutes to go, just as I rejoin the game. In a matter of minutes they are 2-0 ahead, and United play even worse from then on, going out of the Champions league without a struggle. It’s the end of a bad seven days for English football fans, with Spurs going out of Europe as well, and England’s only world-class player getting a nasty injury at the weekend.

Outside, it has started raining again.

 

Appendix 1. Punditry and Language: sayings from televised sport.

For what they are worth, the entries below were gathered over the last year or so. I hope to share more in future posts.

Unintended double-entendres

·         “You’ve got to take your hat off to play like that”. An admiring Alan Smith (Sky Sports) produced this all-time favourite a year or two ago (but you wouldn’t even have to take your wellington boots off to play like Manchester United did against Sevilla.)

Vacuous Jargon

·         “Low (or high) energy (or concentration) levels”. The difficulty with this bit of jargon, widely adopted by ex-players, lies in the mystifying use of the plural form. ‘Low’ is fine with ‘energy’, and I suppose we could meaningfully speak of a single ‘low level’ of it, but how many low levels can a person’s energy be exhibiting at any one time? The same question can be asked about concentration levels.

Mixed Metaphors and other malapropisms

·         “He’s thrown his name into the hat” for selection. Ex-rugby player Steven Ferris said this of Lions second-string Courtney Lawes, who had played well in a midweek match. It was a notable feat on Lawes’ part, as he was presumably throwing his hat into the ring at the same time.

·         “This is the environment where you sink or swim, and traditionally we’ve seen Exeter guys who’ve come through the system – when they get in the pressure-cooker they swim.” An Exeter Chiefs ex-player.

·         “Gloucester have been victims of their own downfall’. The sorrowful judgement of a BT Sport rugby pundit after a game in which Gloucester committed tactical and technical errors.

General drivel

·         “For the players of Pochetino, Mourinho, Guardiola, there’s a level of work ethic that has to happen”. (Gary Neville)

·         “Trippier and Davies are two good fullbacks – completely different to a certain extent, but very talented.” (Jamie Redknapp)

·         “As a fan, when you cross that white line, you’ve crossed the line” (Frank Lampard, speaking about the West Ham pitch invasion)

The daily grind 2: dog-walking

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I pull the tall gate to, and it closes behind me with a crash. As always the dog wants to turn right, out of the small largo* where our house is, round the corner, down the steps and then down the hill to the little allotments near the dual carriageway. But we’re going the other way, a five-minute walk past the school to the park.

The road is a quiet one. There are turnings to the right, but these are safe, square little cul-de-sacs, separated from the road by the broad, uneven pavement of square cobblestones, so the dog is off the lead. She trots ahead of me jauntily, sniffing at this and that, stopping now and then to pee or to check that I’m following.

The area is modest, lived-in, more comfortable than prosperous. There are two or three small apartment blocks in need of a coat of paint, but mostly it is one- or two-storey houses. There are red rooves, head-high fences, small gardens, yuccas, a big broad-crowned pine. Here and there along the pavement lie the hard dark bean-pods of carob trees, the broad-mouthed seed-cases of jacarandas. Across the road, behind a chain-link fence, are the worn-looking grounds of the primary school, an unassuming one-storey building. At the open service gate two dinner-ladies in white overalls are smoking. No other life is visible, though in the warm late-winter sunshine I can hear the swizzling call of a serin somewhere nearby. Sure enough, as I finally think of looking straight up, I catch a glimpse of canary-yellow as it flits from the telephone-wire it has been perching on.

The dog has found an especially appealing gatepost, which she is sniffing thoroughly at various angles and heights. If she was on the lead I would tug at it, but now I wait accommodatingly for a few seconds then walk on. She can follow at her leisure. She is a short-haired, plumpish, intelligent little mongrel, with slightly protuberant eyes set in a head which might be considered handsome in isolation (perhaps only by me), but is unfortunately two sizes too small for her body. With her black and tan markings she is often taken for a Jack Russell, but apparently she isn’t one, she is the issue of a spaniel bitch and something else. We took her on after the death of her second owner two years ago, and she came with the name Gucci. She is ten years old.

As we reach the little park we are approached excitedly by Charley, a friendly long-haired terrier with bright black eyes. I enjoy stroking his coat, although after Gucci’s well-covered ribs, he seems skinny and knobbly under all the silky hair. His owner is friendly and open in a way that the guarded Portuguese rarely are. He is Ukrainian, or Moldovan, one of those. When Veronica and I bump into him last thing at night, he has sometimes had a drink or two. The other night he confided that he is lumbered with Charley because his wife bought him as a puppy expecting a lap-dog, and now won’t have anything to do with him because he grew too big. What she probably thought she was getting was a handbag dog like a Maltese Bichon.  A friend of ours has one which she stows in her bag whenever she goes on the train.

The park is unenclosed. Along one edge is a line of plane-trees, and there are a good number of  ornamental species as you walk through: Indian bean-trees, three or four bushy-crowned pepper trees, currently with clusters of tiny pink peppercorns, and plenty of Australian casuarinas, whose needles and tiny, precisely-knurled cones can be found scattered beneath them.  It is an attractive place to be when the sun is out, especially late afternoon, when the shadows are dark and long on the bright green lawns.

We pass the enclosed playground, equipped with a slide, swings, a climbing frame and so on. The council has put up an energetic sign ‘expressly prohibiting’ the presence of dogs in the playground and ordering that the gate always be kept closed, so in my public-spirited way I close it every time I pass. I have taken to doing things like this, tut-tutting my way through the day. In the summer I pick up beer bottles and cans left near the benches by damaged people and dope-smoking youths, and put them in the recycling bin nearby.

On a whim I sit on a bench, close my eyes and raise my face to the warmth for half a minute, like a man with a hangover in a hot shower. When I open my eyes Gucci has walked on, and is looking back at me nonplussed. She returns and roams about sniffing for a little while before stretching out on the asphalt nearby, chin on the ground. Her eyes are closed, but she isn’t sleeping: at the distant pipe of a child’s voice her head snaps up instantly, ears raised like periscopes.

I do draw the line at picking up other people’s dog-shit. There is always plenty of this, even though there are two or three black-bag dispensers in the park. You’ll have to take my word for it, but if there’s anything worse than picking up your own dog’s warm stools, it is picking up another dog’s cold ones by mistake.

Sometimes the turds are piled on top of one another like little cairns, clearly the work of a large animal like the one we bumped into the other morning. He was a huge black thing with a heavy leather collar and a tag bearing his name – Brutus or Hercules or something, one of those big-dog names the Portuguese like – and a phone-number. Veronica thought he might be lost, and wanted to reassure the owners that he was alive and well, but there was no reply to her call or to the text she sent. This of course was because they knew perfectly well he was out, having let him out themselves twenty minutes before. This is quite common practice in Portugal, and is probably the main reason why the country’s parks and pavements are coated in dog-shit; but why put yourself to the bother of taking your dog out, when he is perfectly capable of doing his business without your supervision?

Which is all very well until you consider the case a year or two ago of a woman who was attacked outside her house at seven-thirty in the morning (the time of day is a give-away), by four rotweillers which had ‘escaped’ from the house of a neighbour. She was so severely mauled that a few hours later she died of her wounds in hospital.

 

*Largo:  a small square, sometimes not much more than a wide place in the street.

The daily grind 1: early morning

This is the first of a few posts about what a retired person has time to get up to when other people are at work.

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The alarm hastily silenced, I slide out of bed as quietly as I can, so my wife can get another half-hour’s sleep.  In the bathroom, I put on the clean shirt, underwear and socks I left on the landing last night. I will be having my shower at the gym, after aquarobics at 7.30.  I can’t find my slippers, so I gingerly descend the polished wooden stairs in stockinged feet.

It is still very dark outside as I put on the kettle. I shut the kitchen door because of the noise and get on with washing a couple of dirty pans left from last night. When the kettle boils I make tea. I can empty the dishwasher later. In the sitting-room the dog opens one unfocused-looking eye, but doesn’t stir from her basket. She is ten now, and sleeps in like a teenager.

At 7.15 I head for the gym, these days modishly described as a Wellness Club, though this seems not to have penetrated the thinking of the people who run the small cafeteria on the first floor down. The swimming-pool is also on this floor. The changing rooms are on the floor below. On the stairwell wall there is a hand-written poster saying ‘Be Stronger than your Excuses’ alongside others bearing profundities of the ‘work hard, play hard’, ‘no pain, no gain’ type. There is a poster advertising Zen classes, and one offering something called Body Jam, which I have never asked about but I hope is something you can do.

In the men’s changing-room, insipid pop music plays in the background. The room is empty, but as I am changing other people arrive, giving a courtesy ‘bom dia’ as they enter, in the Portuguese way. None of these will be doing aquarobics, however, which is mostly considered something for women and old men.

It’s a 25-metre pool, in an enclosed space like a two-storey hangar. It is overlooked from the second of these storeys by floor-to-ceiling observation windows, which offer a view from the exercise-machine and weights rooms on the ground floor. The instructor is already at the poolside fiddling with the useless little sound-system, which is finally induced to play muffled 90s dance music to which nobody pays the slightest attention.

There are about a dozen women in the pool and one other man, a regular without much hair under his bathing cap but a thick white pelt of it on his back and shoulders. Most of us are in our sixties and maybe seventies, though some are slightly younger. The instructor is a skinny, bounding, high-spirited young woman called Inês, who models the exercises with great definition and crispness, and keeps an eye on what people are actually doing below the surface. This is invariably quite different from what she is doing, so there is a constant flow of grinning banter, mockery, correction and encouragement, which has no effect whatsoever. Most of the participants continue to make only the sketchiest attempt to replicate the exercises, and around half chat through the entire programme, only breaking off to protest with ponderous girlishness at any exercise they consider to demand unreasonable exertion. There is plenty of laughter. As we work our way through the programme, I wonder what these women are like in their lives outside the pool. In it they behave like insubordinate ninth-graders, enjoying every minute.

As I walk back to the car reflecting severely on slogans, their epigrammatic vacuousness, their  sentimentality, their obviousness, their corrosive effect on thought, my eye is providentially drawn to a new and uplifting piece of graffiti: ‘se caires 100 vezes, levanta-te 101’ (if you fall a hundred times, pick yourself up a hundred and one.)  I think this through doggedly, and discover that it is impossible: once you have risen from your hundredth fall, the only way to get up for a hundred-and-first time is to fall over again. I wonder censoriously if it might not have been better for the young author to carry out this simple thought-experiment before putting pen to wall, but know in my heart that he* has probably got it right: nobody expects slogans to mean very much.

*I know, it could be a she.