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Pedro Teixeira Neves




Translated by Nathan Leach



TIME TREMBLES





“But the silence was not an unbroken abstract block; rather, little by little it began to take on that complexity that it acquires when one is surrounded by it for long,

anxious stretches of time.”

Ernesto Sábato, “Report on the Blind” (Tr. Helen Lane, Penguin, 2017)






I.

It’s all over now. Nothing bad lasts forever… But I can’t deny that I miss the times when, for a few years, I was a dog. We came back to the complex world of human relations, but ‘human's' gain is 'primitive's’ loss. I look over at my dog, I still think about that emotional state, where all of his senses prick up, every time he works out I’m taking him on a walk. I miss that intensity, of being whole, being a dog. I open the fridge, remove a slice of chorizo and with it in my hand, lead him out to his kennel on the balcony. I return to the kitchen. The TV continues its soliloquy. I hear something about an old man in a cage. I listen more closely to the story. I’ve got to tell my dad about it.


II.

For years we lived believing in normality. Today, tempted to reflect on the past, I realise that we’ve all left behind our animal essence. The world imploded from one day to the next. We became fear and suspicion. And — like an animal which, in the face of danger, cowers in its den, curls up its spiny body, retreats into its shell — we locked our doors. And unwittingly we became animals once more. We stopped touching the world with our hands. We hid our own gaze from the other’s gaze. In the silence we started to hear noises from the attic.


“We have to be very patient until we can flatten the curve. We’re facing an invisible enemy.”


And so the first days went by. We became invisible as well. Enemies. We relished waking up to our slippers, the forgotten leisurely breakfast, the kids getting up later. Compared to the previous rush of house-work-house, it seemed fantastic. And it was. Back then, no one realised the extent of what was coming. Like everyone else, invisible now, I only left the house to buy supplies. I noticed that everyone went about like they were their own bodyguard. A little gorilla lying dormant inside of each person had now been awakened. It was only out of politeness that we tried to kid each other that it wasn’t the end of the world, that we weren’t willing to fight tooth and nail over the last scrap of meat in the supermarket, the last milk carton, pack of rice, the last sad roll of toilet paper.


Then came the deaths. And its rapid spread across borders, defying all data, was impossible for us to fathom. We lived in the 21st century after all. Epidemics, pandemics, plagues, these were terms we thought only appeared in stories from the past, things out of history books, medieval records. Of course, we wanted to believe that death was alien, like all the bad things and disasters which we see and hear about on TV. I was also using the screen to protect myself from the number of deaths. After a while, listening to the daily press conferences from the Department of Health, with the Health Minister and various experts, started to become quite mundane. After each toll, the day would unfold, no different from the last. We would watch a film, read a book, the kids plugged into their computers and the internet, we would raid the fridge, and then, in the evening, we would get some fresh air, on short walks, without leaving the neighbourhood. The new normal didn’t seem to have had an effect on our temporarily-suspended lives. The children didn’t seem to mind. It was like being on holiday, except it wasn’t…. It was strange, especially explaining to them what was happening, how it was happening, when it was all going to end. If it was going to end. Yes, it was, because it was going to end. Everything ends eventually, everything has an expiry date. And, yes, it would be over in a flash.


It wasn’t over in a flash. This is the truth. This was a new time, we were ourselves, but time was suspended. Routines changed completely and so did we. From the offset I thought my wife had started using binoculars, such was the magnifying-glass scrutiny with which she started to watch my every move around the house. I wanted to run away from her, but couldn’t. Three bedrooms, a living room, two bathrooms, a kitchen. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a labyrinth. I started to hold my tongue to avoid arguments. Unknowingly, my powers of hearing came back to life. I sensed her footsteps, even her breathing, and tried to disguise what I knew would annoy her.


‘Hey, honey, everything OK?’


Later I would put my socks in the laundry basket. She would regard me with suspicion and turn away. The real problem was the children; under house arrest, their noisiness gradually became unbearable. Instead of three children, it appeared we were housing a lads’ holiday to Ibiza or Torremolinos. How was I meant to concentrate on prepping, writing, and sending out distance learning reports to school on time, week on week? For my father, in spite of all of this, it was easier. Though he already lived Robinson Crusoe style on an island in his bedroom — accompanied by his endless crime dramas on TV, flicking through newspapers which I took him every morning, eating the meals we took to him — he hunkered down even more. I never figured out whether he knew what was going on out there, in the world and in our house. Maybe, maybe he’d understood, because a lot of the times when I went to see him, I noticed that he had invariably switched off his hearing aid. It was his defence against the world. And against his impatient, stir-crazy grandchildren, ready to explode. Although it seems unlikely, some machines take pity on us. One time I asked him if the food was good, and he responded yes, Inspector Montalbano was very lucky with the women who crossed his path while he was investigating his cases.


‘What?’


He turned back, immersed himself in the screen, I left and shut the door.


‘Kids, don’t bother your grandfather.’


The days went by. I slowly realised that each one of us was, in some way, reverting back to a primitive state. Our shared bond of the siege forcing us to stay in our homes awakened our animal genes. I speak for myself. I spent hours and hours in the living room reading and I noticed that, after three weeks, my sense of smell had reached new heights. This made me feel good, made me feel like a dog. Slowly, and to my delight, I began to pinpoint places in the house by their smell. The unique smell of each child, the odours and aromas of my wife according to her mood that day, the smell of each spice going into the meals I cooked, the smell of grandad's farts that seeped under the door and infiltrated the hallway. I could see quite clearly then that there was a before and there was an after the ‘Great Lockdown’, as this era would come to be known in the history books.

Man, curiously enough, seemed to stay the same. We heard terrible news stories. Reality insisted on outdoing fiction: ‘In Spain, a group of infected elderly people were met with rocks and explosives as they were being transferred from one care home to another. According to the police report, rocks were thrown at the medical vehicles and they had to be escorted to the city. What’s more, one car blocked the ambulances’ path. Its occupants, two men, 32 and 25 years old, were arrested. This violent reception did not stop when they got to the city. Upon their arrival at the residence where the autonomous government of Andalusia had rehomed them, the elderly travellers were surrounded by around fifty people who threatened to take measures if more infected people entered the city.’ Little was said of happiness. The news of pain and fear dragged us along like trawl nets. Some men bruise others as if they were rotten fruit.

I argued with my children and my wife like never before. We hurt and loved each other like never before. Despite the masks, we were more authentic than we had been for a long time. We disputed our space, each person’s right to their noise, to their silence, we saw each other as we really were, discovering that the identities that life within society had instilled in us were fictional. The planet which we knew and breathed was also fictional, a bad storyline, a low-budget screenplay. We started to recognise that there are senses beyond the five we’re taught about. Seeing, we started going blind and saw more keenly. Hearing, we became deaf and heard more acutely. We felt with our hands, but we closed our eyes and started to perceive the world with phantom limbs. And thus I noticed the darkness of the world that the virus had illuminated.

III.

We celebrated our first April in controlled freedom. Few things move me like the songs ‘E Depois do Adeus’ or ‘Grândola Vila Morena’ [ 1 ]. This year, seeing one lone man cross Avenida da Liberdade with an enormous Portuguese flag, reminded me of Pope Francis, alone, in St Peter’s Square. It had been quite some time since I ventured into poetry.

here

all April overflows

absence multiplies and sings of freedom.

come and I will teach you

how many windows make a carnation.

IV.

The following summer we were allowed to go to the beach. I remember well, it wasn’t that hot even though it was August. I got my ticket to go into the sea and waited. When it was my turn I quickly called it a day, it was freezing. I went back to our plastic cabin, but it was like a greenhouse, the heat unbearable. We decided to go back home, shower with the hose on the patio. Next door, my neighbour from 3E was working out in the improvised gym he had made, right next to the vegetable patch that my neighbour from 1D had planted, though they were separated by a glass partition. Everyone behind their own mask. We cooled off and went home. I went downstairs to go shopping, the concierge took my temperature and wrote down 36.6 in his logbook for the block of flats, which he handed over to the health authorities every month. In the queues, suspicion was barely disguised under a veneer of civility. We all came to distrust the word intimacy.

The Health Minister aged a huge amount in the space of a year. Even though all of us had learned to live in a new world, regaining an idea of normality wasn’t easy. It was as if we all had to learn to touch the world for the first time. We gave new meaning to everything. We came to realise what writers have known for a long time, that beyond love and friendship, all we need is a terrace, a good cup of coffee and a book. And that nothing makes sense without the other; the other is our chest of drawers.

Ignoring the cancerous reality doesn’t make it go away, just like ignoring a tragic diagnosis doesn’t slow down our journey towards the abyss. And that’s why we got used to it. We get used to it all. The Chinese didn’t give up selling live animals. The Americans didn’t give up pointing the finger at other nations. Northern Europe didn’t stop accusing Southern Europe. The world didn’t give up poverty. War didn’t give up being the top story on the news. In the so-called ‘Third World’, the thirst for blood doubled, the smell of the hunt intensified. Men didn’t give up forgetting everything. And slowly the world returned to its old habits. We got used to not getting used to things. And what had seemed to be a lesson, something taught, something learned, turned into history. Man never forgets how to be man. The old life started to win back its territory. But would we be able to live without the disease? How much time would it take to rid ourselves of it, of its marks and scars? Would we relearn freedom so easily? Would we stop fearing the other?

‘Are you wasting sunlight?’ my wife on the phone. (I am.) I had missed the sun. The sun is a consolation, not just because the word has the sun (‘sol’ in Portuguese) in it. There are words which shine. Just like there are names which sparkle: Lispector, Eugénio, Sophia [ 2 ]… On the weekends I tried to take Dad to the street café with me. In vain. His friends aren’t there anymore. They were over eighty years old, they had been the ones most affected. Many still have to stay at home; pestilent. And what about Inspector Montalbano? Well, the Inspector was still surrounded by beautiful women. At least I know that my father sleeps well.

V.

The days continued in a strange peace for months and months. A false calmness had fallen over the city and its people. Apart from teaching my classes, work which continued to consume much of my time, I found myself writing a diary, which I still do today. Psychologists said it was a good idea. A way to not ‘get trapped’ like a cornered dog.

‘A diary is a superb idea. It’s a place where your imagination has no limits!’ my wife said when I told her about it. I kept wondering about this tautology…

Words have this gift, they alleviate our suffering.

VI.

ANXIETY - It is sulphur within. A schism. Neuroscientists could easily recognise obvious drives to invent a new world. More admirable.

CONTAGION - We are all the same dust, the same sea.

CONTAMINATION - Like a shroud glued to the skin. On each body, a face that has become suspicion. Eyes like the pleasure principle, thus, suspicious eyes.

CHILDREN - What burden will their bodies bear these days? Burns?

DEATHS - There are tears that do not know the way from eyes.

FEAR - What will remain from an age of fear once it’s torn apart and reduced to minute specks of memory? Time fears nothing: not even the banking towers of Manhattan, the stock exchange buildings or the vaults of the Vatican. It is all too true that fear has a memory, but nothing lasts forever; fear is not marrow.

FREEDOM – Riddle me this: what’s it harder to be than to appear to be?

FUTURE - From which balcony or window can it be seen? In what world is it found? One thing’s for certain: the fight against death will continue, discreetly, like musak. The journey of absence will always be long.

FUTURE I - Neither canon nor western tourist.

LANGUAGE - Layoff, cordon sanitaire, covid wards, corona graphs, corona bonds. ‘Language is a virus.’

LOCKDOWN - And the bigger question is other people, still there, right in front of you. With walls in between, prophylactic. Denying our desires for the other.

MASK - Mirror, mirror, on the wall, is anyone fairer than we used to be? Do we let the mask fall away or do we put the mask on? One thing’s for certain, we will not make a statue of the future in the image of the past. There will be horses running loose in the city.

NEW - We have to invent a new ‘new’. Step one: Punctuate our thoughts. A semi-colon before acting. Then, throw flowers onto the miracles to see if they bear fruit. And let the days flow, like dreams through a woman’s body.

NORMALITY - But, wasn’t it normality which brought us here!... The world must scrutinise itself. Let us love the momentary darkness; the longed-for light is there, within.

NOW - Now you can be the now. You could be the one whose name is called. Your body learning the possibility of the night, becoming its face and memory. Recognising the night around you, the night in others. Behind your front door might be the abyss. Your name, naked, ready. Like a thought ready to fade away. The now never so concrete: silences so very agitated.

NUMBERS - In their desire for progress, they create barbarity disguised as well-being.

REMEMBER - That all of us will die, or that all of us have an opportunity to rethink our lives? Obscurity is also a place of light. Before calling death to the body we are all nel mezzo del cammin.

READ - Prayer is circular, reading is flux. Circularity is to not stop until you die, flux is continuity.

VACCINE - We seek, now and forever, reality’s forbidden fruit. Alice, to the White Queen: ‘... one can’t believe impossible things!’ The White Queen: ‘When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

WINDOW – When I wake up, I’m an elf, with a panda-like languor, as if I had swallowed the propofol-pacific ocean or spent the night at a drugged-up, tantric bacchanal. And I find myself here, glassy-eyed, gazing over the sea, a lyric-oneiric poet lying in bed in a transatlantic trance, tempted to write poetry on the soles of my feet. In truth, I wake up at the surface of the nightmare. Sleep jumbled in words like nitrile, oropharyngeal, endotracheal, crystalloid, ephedrine, atropine, coagula, tape, etc.

VII.

Bit by bit the government was releasing us from the sting of emergency and calamity.

VIII.

Four years passed… God and the Devil. Death kept at its job of killing. Investors forgot about the health service once again and went to the banks. Health professionals took to the streets to protest once more. Those who quite happily used to question the place of a National Health Service started to make noise in Parliament again.

‘Come on, let’s go to a bookshop. You could buy a book.’

‘Have you ever seen a life slip through your fingers?’

Never. I leave and go to the café. Little remains of the restrictions which we lived with these last years. You can still see a few mask-wearing people, those who prefer to maintain what they imagine to be appropriate social distancing. The world may tremble, but time doesn’t stop. An old man arrives and sits down at the table next to mine. His hands are shaking. He puts his newspaper on the table, jerks it open, bit by bit, and when the waitress comes over he orders a coffee.

Everyone was looking at him sidelong, suspiciously. Not five minutes had passed before two agents of the Law arrived. The police officers asked him to get up and accompany them. The man’s legs shook, but he didn’t budge. Then the officers grabbed him, one on each side, hand on arm, hand under armpit, hand on arm, hand under armpit, they brought him to his feet and took him. In the street, an ambulance waited. It opened its back doors and swallowed the old man whole. The waitress came back. She’d brought a cloth and some disinfectant and cleaned the table with vigorous circles. I finished my coffee and got up, feeling sick. When will they let them go? Before leaving, I noticed that an enormous blue butterfly had landed on top of the table where the old man had been.

And I look at the book that I’m reading and wonder about salvation through literature. Today sees football stadiums reopening their doors. I’ve heard that priests are still hearing confession over the phone. Masses have started up again, but there are fewer congregants. The shopping centres, on the other hand, welcome legions of shoppers. We’ve gone back to our old ways. Online teaching is a thing of the past. Debates about those damned penalties are back. The TV has gone back to regurgitating controversial shots, suspect decisions by the ref, endless discussions. At the end of the day, it’s only for old people that time seems to have stopped. Man has become very sure of himself again. There is no vaccine for these sorts of certainties, there never will be. The world limps on. The noise of cars has replaced the birdsong, motor fuel in Venice has banished the dolphins, the smoke of factories has painted the city skies the colour of smokers’ lungs. Man as he has always been: he has forgotten that one day all that will remain of him in the world is dust.

Like everybody who went back to their old ways, without poetic licence, I have embodied society’s modern man once more, with all of its urgency and hurry. The path we went down appears to have been circular, like a prayer. Maybe what we lived through really was a war. Because wars reveal Man’s true nature, and this was human Nature itself; to fail again. Not necessarily better. We have gone back to the freedom of the old world, it’s true, but we have forgotten once again that our liberal attitudes towards the world will finish it off one day, mortgaging tomorrow’s world. And so we tip the world into the abyss. We don’t need viruses, worms or bacteria. We are enough for the darkness.

My house went back to being a home. Space and intimacy. And distance. School. Hospital. School. Activities. Home. We became neighbours again. In the end, lots of people survived. Society sustained craters, scars, wounds, absences. We shook hands again, gestured at kisses and hugs. I went back to bookshops and cafés. That’s enough for me. We can now trust in reality, so it seems, but all appearance is grounded in an unhealthy real. The feelings of fear and doubt persist. Something weighs on us, the weight of experience.

I think of this while fetching the dog to take him on a walk. Behind the glass, seeing me, he can tell that I’m going to set him free, I’m going to take him out. His ears are pricked, his sensitive nose had picked up on me long before, his tail wagging, his back eager for my touch, for how much I’m going to pet him, his eyes quiver with excitement. Now that everything has returned to ‘normal’, I also miss being a dog. It’s weird, this paradox, that we have to be confined in order to return to being dogs, to feel completely, to fully activate our senses. The real anaesthetises the primitive within us. That is the danger of the real in which we live: becoming machines in the programmed city.

Listening to the lunchtime news today an item piques my interest due to its sheer novelty and extravagance. I listen more closely, the newsreader says that today, early in the morning, when he started his shift, a Lisbon Zoo employee came across an unusual scene. Inside of a cage, its gates locked securely, he had found an old man, sitting on the ground, reading a book. The cameraman started off with a wide shot of the cage. You could see a body inside. On either side other cages were visible, with dopey, anaesthetised lions. Next, the shot closed in on the face of the man who was there, reading, seemingly disconnected from the world around him. It was then that I was overcome with shock. The old man…was…it was the man from the café… from the street café, who was taken away by the authorities. Yes, it was him!... The journalist poked his microphone through the bars and tried to get the man to answer his questions. The scene reminded me of a performance, long ago, by a writer, whose surname was Pimenta, who, yes, had also once sat in a cage… The old man didn’t respond, he just read his book inside the cage. All he said to the reporter was: ‘In the human world it is more difficult to be free, than to appear to be free.’ This was just before they picked him up and took him away against his will. The old man was reading a short novel by Bohumil Hrabal, ‘The Little Town Where Time Stood Still’. Seeing him on the TV, being carried away again, like Ribera’s deposed Christ, reminded me of Hrabal’s book, and the unforgettable character Uncle Pepin. And I was reminded of his death scene, one of the most beautiful that I had ever read:

‘It was Uncle Pepin. The sister stooped down, took the uncle in her arms like a child, so light was the uncle, like a girl picking her doll up from her pram.

‘“Grandad”, said the sister, “there’s a visitor for you”. (...) …Dad supported his brother and looked at his legs, his blue leached feet, Uncle was naked, with a towel thrown across his front, he sat like Christ crowned with thorns.’ I’ve got to tell …

‘Don’t ask me for miracles either. I’m going to go out and get some air, sit by the beach and read. Prison gets tiring…’ [ 3 ]

I turned around, startled. It was my father. It had been months since he had left his room. Instinctively, I thought I ought to tell him that it still wasn’t allowed, that there were just a few more weeks, that restrictions shouldn’t last for very much longer, that the oldest peo…

‘Right you are, dad. I’ll come with you. How’s Montalbano?’

‘He’s a good inspector, a lovely inspector.’

And he cracked a smile, which still seemed to hold joy. And I realised that we would still exchange a lot of silences. I realised that what matters is not to lose faith in eternity.



[ 1 ] These two songs were planned to kickstart Portugal’s Carnation Revolution when they were played on the radio. The Carnation Revolution (1974) overthrew the Estado Novo regime.

[ 2 ] Clarice Lispector (Brazilian writer), Eugénio de Andrade and Sophia de Mello Breyner (Portuguese poets).

[ 3 ] The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, translated by James Naughton (London: Abacus, 1994), pp. 292-3


 

Pedro Teixeira Neves is a journalist since 1994, and has worked in newspapers and magazines, as well as Television (programa Câmara Clara, RTP2). He published two novels (the third is coming out in March), a number of poetry books, children's books (three of them with his own illustrations), short stories and many other contributions. He was a photographer for the magazine Epicur and produced two photography books about Fado. He won two prizes from the Foundation José Saramago and sign many other works. He currently writes, paints and looks after his children, that eternal confinement.


Nathan started learning Portuguese to reconnect to his family roots in Brazil, his mother having been born in Petrópolis but moving to the UK when she was 9. He soon became fascinated with the language and decided to study it further in university. He has recently finished his MSt in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford, focusing on Brazilian cinema in the late 60s and early 70s.

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