Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill

Nicholas Walton Healey pic Michelle Cahill lives in Sydney. Her fiction appears in AntipodesEtchings, Southerly, Meanjin, TEXT,  Alien Shores (Brass Monkey, 2012) and Escape (Spineless Wonders, 2011).She is the recipient of a Developing Writer’s grant from the Australia Council and has received prizes in fiction and poetry.

~Photograph by Nicholas Walton-Healey

Letter to Pessoa

When I open my eyes Aleandro has left, his bed sheet folded. For a moment I’m in Santa Monica. The whirring fan, the garish pink walls seem vaguely familiar. Alcohol settles like a carpet of snow falling softly in my head. On the desk next to your Selected, there’s a note, saying “Thanks” with no address. Not even a number.

It’s so humid my wristwatch could be melting as in Dali’s famed masterpiece but the dream is my own and the mattress is hard against my back. I rub my eyes. I’ve missed the last bus. (Should mention that I met him at a tapas bar, El-Xampaynet. And fell for his champagne curls, his unmannered charm.)

Resisting waves of nausea I stand.  Pull on jeans. Check face in a piece of mirror stuck above the sink. Try for a clean shave.

Estrella is in the courtyard. She is busy stacking boxes of Fontvella, the floor cluttered with piles of dirty clothes and cylinders of gas. Fuse wires spread like vines across the cracked plaster. I can hear the squeak of the pulley used to hoist laundry up to the terrace.

Church bells gag. Beyond the rooftops the sky crushes me with its vivid blue. The old man at reception nods sympathetically. He guesses I have my suicidal hours. Aren’t we ever-restless? Rebellious clerks for whom the streets are never desolate, littered with cigarette butts and last night’s pardon.

Two blocks away a bar is open.

Coffee rouses me. The owner looks weary. He starts carving the jamon in thick slices. Strings of garlic and the chintzy jingle of a radio tell me it’s time to find your whereabouts, to leave this stinking city behind. An old man thumbs through the classifieds.  The smell of his Rex mingles with the odour of stale piss, the floor trashed with butts and greasy smudges.

Flâneur, you made me dream of Lisboa. Of theosophy, of black and white mosaic tiles, of slaves and cool Atlantic breezes. Of Afro jazz, pastel facades and Alfonso Pereira. Or perhaps it was the poems of Álvaro de Campos. I’ve wondered if they were fabrications or if he lived in you? What ships left the rat-infested harbours transporting poets? What ships are docked within us?

Old radio plays a sevillanas, the guys at the bar are drinking cerveza, the coffee wakes me up.  Then she strides in.  The Countess of El Raval come without her chariot. Dressed in a flimsy blue dress, with her daughter, a three-legged dog and a fat man wearing bifocals.  Her eyes are piercing, her face sharp though I can tell that once she would have been pretty.  She’s waving her arms, still high, gnawing her pastry voraciously.  Joking with the men at the counter.  I can’t get over the mad glint in her eyes as her head spins and she feeds the dog a chunk of bread.  Or the wide gap between her teeth when she smiles or the click of her heels. What voice speaks through her? What would you make of her in your song book of poets? Seafarer, ambassador of taverns, if I could read your marginalia, peruse your trunk stuffed with verses, chronicles and odes, uncensored. If I could hypertext as Pessoa to Pessoa of the Countess of El Ravel, or find in Portuguese the precise cipher.

Circumstance is drab, a deadweight lessened by drama. It could be five minutes later, it could be twenty though it happens approximately that the Duchess arrives. A fat platinum blonde she is wearing a fake tiara and so much eyeshadow her eyes are blue balloons like stingers. The bartender becomes angry, beads of sweat on his brow.  He serves her swiftly before retreating to the scullery. But the men line up, talking while staring through her gaping dress.

How does one purge of this excess? I write as myself in the half-light, allowing a swarm of feelings and observations to grow. My epistles are tactless though the concubine retreats in me. She is mostly febrile, an impulsive raconteur, conversing with herself.

I’ll wait for you in Bar Trindade on Coelho da Rocha. Perhaps you’ll enter carrying under your arm a leather suitcase. You’ll order a 2, 4, 8 and the waiter will bring matches, cigarettes and brandy. He will fill your empty bottle. Perhaps you will observe my profile, my gaze and all of us will converse through one medium. Or you will drink alone until you leave staggering into an evening of sparrows and dust. What happens isn’t certain. All that we have are fragments of the mirror. Cold and sharp in their edges but precise and dazzling when the light sweeps back into them and we see outside of time.

They say you write in English and in French, sometimes in Edwardian cafés.  I believe so. The wind speaks to you saying silence is everything. You dream like an argument without feeling. You are two singing in time; you are a double pain which I already know, weary as I am of climbing these stairs to the fifth floor of a building in Rhonda de San Pedro. Maria Gonzales with the heavy accent asks me to come back in an hour. Waiting on a Consul’s initials.

‘I’m so sorry’ she purrs with a flirtatious smile, behind the counter of the dark room.  (Her honey-blonde hair pinned, her details imprinted on a card I’ll keep for a few days in my back-pocket.)

So what if there are postponements? Delays should not concern me—genius of dreams. I’ll never be anything. I sit in a café, drink a green glass tea and read Álvaro de Campos’  “Tobacconists”.  Tomorrow evening we could meet among the ministries in Martinho da Arcada. Strangers like us belong to the street: we ebb and flow with the crowd, we rise with the evening as the heat swells slowly by degrees. The straight guys lunch in cafeterias under the shade of trees and umbrellas, watching the pretty signorinas parade. I’m starting to feel jaded but my bags are packed. A train leaves this evening for Lisboa Oriente.

Passengers hurl their baggage into racks. Young and tough and cheap, we display all the talents that Dali would despise. We reek of sweat. The guard stamps my ticket. A shrill whistle reins-in the day. Now my journey begins and I’m reminded of your best heteronyms. So many minds and sundry, the petitions of your shadow portraits. Not one could erase Aleandro or the genteel women of Barcelona, who seem like the dreams I know are not dreams. Their voices unravel and speak over me, and in my thoughts as I begin to write them….