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“Canna ashoo a queshoon?” I looked round to see a short, stubby woman lurching drunkenly towards me in the dingy, fishermen’s taverna near the river. “If you’rr marr’d, ah’m no’ intrresset.” Against the background of subdued Portuguese murmuring, the broad Glasgwegian accent was unmistakable, its rolling ‘r’s laced with spit.
Having already ordered a glass of red wine from my stool at the bar, I’d spotted her too late. Turning my back, in the hope she might go away, wasn’t going to work. A hip bumping against my thigh, as she closed in, was proof enough of that.
The scruffy, little drinking hole behind the market in Tavira had become my favourite. Being the only woman, and loud at that, Jan was impossible to avoid among the coterie of hard-drinking males. Staggering from table to table, she was grabbing men’s hands and trying to get them to kiss her. One moment full of bonhomie the next full of aggression, it wasn’t behaviour or language the locals were used to, even if they could get past the tipsy slur. Her alternate wooing and cursing making scant impression, she had moved on to me. Portuguese fishermen prefer to get drunk quietly. The only thing they did understand was that she was plastered.
Just by the quayside market lies a maze of shady cobblestone alleys dotted with cafés and bars. The small Algarve fishing port gets hot early even out of season, and by lunchtime most are busy with people seeking refuge from the searing sun.
Housed in a late 19thC building the market is divided into fish and vegetable sections. Fishing barks sail out of the sea and up the River Gilao to land their catches right next to it. A siren sounds and a bell rings as the wooden boats arrive and depart throughout the day. Built in the days when Portugal still had a sizeable empire there is a sense of former wealth about the elegant structure; an atmosphere of faded glory.
“Ah’m no’ intrressed if you’rr marr’d.” I felt unease at a certain ambiguity in the statement, an absent ‘or not’ left hanging in the air. Jan was sixty-four. I’d watched her indicate it to an old man sitting alone at a table. Licking a stubby digit she’d inscribed the numbers into the grease laminated tabletop over and over until he understood, mouthing “shishty-fuorr”generously at the same time. He had inscribed seven and three in similar manner.
It was late afternoon and most of the drinkers were elderly. A couple of younger men picked at a large crab shell with their fingers.
“Cos if you’rr marr’d, ah’m no’ intrresset.” We’d already been down this way, many times. One of the young men was getting annoyed. She cursed him, “Feck awf!” That they all understood.
“Ah lev in Liverpool noo,” she told me for the umpteenth time, as though reassuring herself she lived anywhere at all, “Ye’ve luvly broon ayes.” she held my hand and tried to focus on them. The barman shot me a sympathetic glance. A photograph of him in army uniform, standing beside a large alsation, hung above the bar. There was no beer belly in those days. “Ma family, they’ve all grewn up noo, they dinna care aboo’ me. Dinna ge’ me wrong, ah love thum, ah’m allus helping thum whe’ they need ut, bu’ they doon care aboot me. None o’ thum.” There was a pained indignance. “Ah was divorced in 1973, ah’m free to do wha’ ah want noo. Ah cud lev heer if ah wann’ed. Din’ get me wrong, ah get lonely some o’ the tame.”
The moment I left I knew I would fade into a smear of disjointed memory to become a mere jolt of discomfort the morning after. I was hardly out of the door before hearing her accost her next victim.
Probably the most beautiful coastal town on Portugal’s Algarve, Tavira was first settled in the Bronze Age. Like many historical cities and towns on the Iberian Peninsula it has witnessed a procession of Phoenicians, Romans and Moors pass though its portals. It became an important trading centre after the Moors invaded in the 8th century. Part of the Moorish Empire, until reconquered by Christians in 1242, most of its buildings were destroyed in the earthquake of 1755, which affected much of Portugal’s coastline. Soon rebuilt, its wonderful architecture still shows echoes of its Moorish past in its tiles and arches. The port is renowned for its 37 churches serving a population of just over 26,000.
Inside the cool and shade of the market unfamiliar words resonate harshly against the thick stone walls. Diminishing mountains of fresh, ripe strawberries, cherries, and nectarines urge you to buy before all are gone. From early morning, hordes of townspeople push and shove as they trade friendly banter for favour with the stallholders. They take their food seriously in this part of the world. Beneath parasols outside the market sides of bacalao, from the Lofoten Islands in Norway, weigh down tables along with local pulses, cheeses and bacon from the surrounding countryside. As the shadows shorten, the market stalls empty, and the cafés and bars begin to fill once more.
That Alice desperately needed the job was painfully obvious in the way she fussed over the few diners who came into the tiny restaurant. She had an awkwardness about her that was reflected in both her movements and speech. Telling me she’d only been working in the restaurant a fortnight, she admitted she hadn’t quite got the hang of it.
“You’ve come back,” she had greeted with a distinct Black Country twang as I walked through the door. “Luvverly.” I felt she must’ve mistaken me for someone else, before realising she’d seen me peer through the window in passing a moment or two earlier. “You can sit down anywhere,” she gestured expansively. There were only four tables. A German couple sat at one. “We’ve got some luvverly swordfish today which comes with salad, but she charges extra for bread.” The Germans were leaving. They gave me a knowing smile. “Luvverly,” Alice said, as they tipped her, “Boye-boye.”
“Luvverly,” was her reply when I told her I originally came from Leicester. She must be a stranger to the city.
I ordered an omelette. Alice couldn’t stop talking. I learned she was fifty and had come to Portugal in answer to a small ad for someone to look after a war veteran. He was a generous employer and for five years they looked after each other. Then he died leaving her with no means of support. In all that time she’d hardly learned a word of Portuguese. Though the war veteran had loved Portugal, according to Alice, he’d despised its people, and had kept well away from them. By doing so, he’d also kept Alice away from them. “It’s good to be able to talk to somebody that understands me properly. Round here, well, they’re all ignorant.” For a while she’d lived rough, sleeping out in the open; being fed by a retired fisherman.
A Belgian family entered the restaurant; a mother on holiday with her two teenage sons,
“We’ve got some luvverly swordfish today,” Alice said, as though she might be waiting at tables back in Brum.
She wore a blue pinafore wrapped round her tired figure. Her hair hung dull, blonde-grey onto her shoulders. She could’ve been anybody’s middle-aged mother serving bacon butties in Edgbaston. For twenty-five years she’d worked at British Telecom until one day she upped and left. She hadn’t been back for two years. She couldn’t even afford the bus fare to Faro sixteen miles away. Wages in the Algarve are low. Unemployment is high. A Portuguese friend of hers picks cockles from the riverbed for a living. It’s all he knows. I’d seen the gleaners out at low tide. Usually, one or two them in khaki rubber waders bent over double, trawling the mud with their fingers before depositing the molluscs into plastic buckets. They sell them in the fish market for enough of a pittance to enable them to drink for the rest of the day. Smoking incessantly, they sip at wine, beer, or cheap brandy with small cups of sweet coffee until their money runs out.
The thoroughly bemused Belgian family paid up, leaving a tip. There seemed more than a touch of sympathy in the gesture. “Luvverly,” Alice twittered, fussing about them, as she cleared the table.
Once she’d been arrested for armed robbery in a town further south. An eyewitness identified her in a lineup from behind a two-way mirror. Three policewomen interrogated her for over twenty-four hours. She swears they all looked identical.
“Speak Portuguese!” they demanded, over and over again. The robber had been fluent. Eventually, they had to release her, as she barely spoke a word of Portuguese.
Her rheumy eyes gazed wistfully at some indeterminate point on the wall opposite.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the stories oi’ve got to tell,” she said. I was having a job.
Thursday is half-day for the market. But not for everyone. Beyond the clothes stalls, outside the main building, a knot of heroin dealers continue to ply their trade by a narrow iron bridge. From late afternoon, and well into the evening, they sit beneath the shade of the palm trees. Nesting house martins scree above them slicing the air this way and that before skimming the river’s surface. Two brothers with dark curly hair and brown arms, and a skinny, mean-faced girl, stare stonily at passersby.
When they entered the scruffy fishermen’s bar the couple were having a tiff. She was middle-aged, very English, and still very attractive. By her accent, she was also very middle class. There was a young boy with them. Their differing attitudes towards him gave the impression he was her son, but not his. Something about the way the man and boy failed to interact, suggested the adults weren’t in a relationship together, or hadn’t been in one very long. The man was Dutch or German.
“But we were supposed to be having a meeting,” the woman protested shrilly. “I rang Phil but he never got back to me. As far as I knew the deal was supposed to be going through, and now you tell me I can’t sell it.” Whatever it was, or might’ve been, it soon became clear the acquaintance was strictly business now. The man’s features were drawn rather than lean, and his mouth had a tell-tale slackness. His front teeth were chipped; his ice-blue eyes glazed; their pupils dilated. All signs of a client of the dealers by the iron bridge. Or even their supplier. A ex-smack dealer, I once knew in London, bought a hostel on the Algarve, after being released from jail. He told me it was to get away from the stuff. Back then, Portugal had a serious problem with hard drugs, so it wasn’t the smartest of moves. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t heard from him since.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, not until we see the lawyer.” The lean-faced man had the golden tan of a northern European, who has spent some years in the south. He used his hands and face a lot to express himself. Creasing and gesticulating, in the fashion of someone trying to appear reasonable, he only managed to add to the impression he was lying. His English was very good. Switching to fluent Portuguese, he ordered some drinks at the bar. Taking them across to a table by the window, after perusing the menu, they ordered food. Lunch seemed to diffuse the tension a tad.
“I’m fifty,” the attractive woman said, softer now. She looked younger. “I’ve worked all my life, I just want what’s mine, my money. I don’t care where it comes from, I just want it.” Whatever the young boy’s thoughts were, he kept them to himself throughout the meal.
In the old marketplace they sell live chickens on Saturday mornings. Two, or three, at a time are crammed into old, wooden, orange crates too small for the job. Their legs trussed with bine, sad-looking feathers stick awkwardly through chicken wire nailed over to prevent them escaping. Old men and women poke bony fingers deep beneath the birds’ plumage to the flesh below, to test how plump they are. One cock crows pathetically. It’s certain he won’t see the end of the weekend. By Sunday night he will have been strangled, plucked, and had his giblets torn out. From there, depending on how old he is, he will either be chopped up, battered and deep-fried, or broiled whole for hours before being served.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
This article was written after my first visit to Tavira quite some years ago. By the time I made a second visit, just a few years later, the lively fish and vegetable market had been transformed into a dull, homogenous shopping mall reminiscent of many throughout Europe.
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