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Verge 2017 – Chimera



Aisling Smith

It was Beatriz who apologised for both of them.

‘Sorry we’re late,’ she said in her pretty, accented English. Jack felt the rosacea of embarrassment on his cheeks—at one stage his Portuguese had been good enough for her not to have to switch.

Her friends had obviously been seated at the table for a while; the water glasses looked like they had been emptied and refilled several times, and the paper table cloth was creased. But they simply waved the apology away and stood to embrace the two latecomers—kisses on both cheeks for Beatriz and handshakes for Jack. They were as welcoming as ever and, forgetting for a moment, Jack wondered fleetingly why he’d left it so long to come back.

He clambered onto the low bench seat and Beatriz tucked in beside him. It wasn’t really big enough for everyone and Beatriz and Jack were mashed together, thighs and shoulders pressed tight. The other faces around the table were unnervingly familiar to Jack. João and Tiago were the two men, and he recognised Carolina, Inês and Lúcia as well. João was quick to speak, his voice warm.

‘Welcome back, my friend. It has been far too long.’

‘It has. I’ve missed this place.’

They’d known each other pretty well three years ago, but that seemed so far away now. Still, everyone was smiling at him and when they spoke, they used English like Beatriz for his sake. Jack sat, feeling awkward in his monolingualism and uncertain whether it was okay to laugh when they made jokes about the Spanish.

The pacing waitress in her slinky black jumpsuit took their order for drinks. Jack asked for green wine, a speciality from around here which he felt a blossoming eagerness to taste again. The others ordered red.

‘You’re such a tourist,’ Beatriz’s cool voice murmured at his shoulder. Jack thought she sounded reproving rather than affectionate, but the others just laughed. Well, she was half-right—he was both a tourist and not. ‘I’ll order some food for us, shall I?’ she added to him. She read the menu silently, her professionally manicured hands spreading it open, each finger capped by the pale sliver of French tips. It was only after she started working at the gallery that she started bothering with that bullshit. She wouldn’t have cared three years ago. And Sarah back home certainly didn’t.

‘Beatriz tells us you’re working as a lawyer now?’ said João, offering tinder for small-talk.

‘Yeah,’ Jack muttered. ‘It’s not too bad.’

He never knew what to say about the tiny law firm where he’d managed to score his first proper job. He chatted a bit about it and João was nodding, but with an expression of politeness rather than true interest. It was a relief when the waitress brought their drinks and the conversation was interrupted for a toast.


Jack placed the wine glass to his lips, thinking that he had never quite gotten used to the lack of reaction being a lawyer caused here—the Portuguese had been more interested when he’d simply been studying liberal arts. Certainly Beatriz had never understood why he hadn’t pursued studies in philosophy instead. At his elbow, she had turned pointedly away and was talking to the three girls. Jack didn’t mind; they’d run out of things to say days ago. João and Tiago started to chat, still in English, but mostly to each other. The table had ripped right down the middle, two conversations forming, and Jack stuck between them, unsure of which one to follow. He sipped the green wine and, around them, the restaurant buzzed and hummed.

Three years ago, this place had been home. He’d lived with Beatriz in Porto for twelve months after university. He’d even been offered a place to do his Master’s degree in philosophy in Lisboa—and had turned it down to go home and get a job in the law. In hindsight it seemed ludicrous and he’d spent the next two years waiting for a similar opportunity to come up again, but it never had. Yet at the time, he was missing Australia terribly, and long-distance had seemed easy and romantic: him and Beatriz separated by oceans and miles. Back then, he’d never felt love so intensely before; he scribbled poems for her in a notebook and spent his scholarship money on flowers for her room. He’d bought books in Portuguese and read through them laboriously with a dictionary, webbing them with marginalia. For her part, she’d painted tiny watercolours for him and brought home pastéis de Nata from the bakery, just because he liked them. And in Edinburgh she’d braved the weather to watch every single one of his rugby matches, shivering in the wind despite her scarf. He’d been convinced that they would be okay.

Yet when he left, Beatriz had been nervous.

‘I feel saudade,’ she had said when she dropped him off at Departures.

Her accent had thickened as it always did when she was upset and her hands had flown upwards to articulate something she obviously couldn’t voice. Saudade—she had never been able to really translate what the word meant. He’d looked it up, but the sterility of the dictionary’s explanation and fussy etymology hadn’t helped much. It hadn’t let him feel the word. He thought perhaps that you had to be Portuguese to truly understand what it meant. At the time, he had assumed that she was simply saying she’d miss him and only later did he realise that there was far more packed into that elusive word. It was deeper, more ceaseless. The ‘I’ll miss you too,’ he’d told her in return had not been anywhere near adequate—and when he’d eventually realised his mistake he had felt queasy with disappointment. Saudade: a collision of past, present and future. The deep chasm of loss for what has passed, which mingles with the hopeless longing for its return. The dregs of love which cause both melancholy and resignation. Not just a gap in the English vocabulary, but something that never existed in the first place.

Of course, in the early days he’d travelled back to Portugal as often as he could or she’d flown to Melbourne. But somewhere along the way their physical distance had led to a distance of another sort. They had busy existences in different countries—separate lives and new possibilities. The trips had petered out and the last time she had come to see him, a good six months ago, he knew he hadn’t been attentive enough. He’d let himself get distracted by work and she’d been left to wander around town by herself. Sure, he’d taken her out in the evenings; they had sat across from one another in the newest, most expensive restaurants he’d been able to think of. The sheen on the moonstones around Beatriz’s throat and hanging from her ears had been set to best advantage in the candlelight, but she’d mostly looked at her plate or out the window, rather than at him. The night she had to leave, he told her fervently that he loved her—clutched her body to him and whispered in her ear—and she’d murmured an agreement, but it was only when that bulky jet had carried her away, back to the Northern hemisphere that he’d actually felt longing for her settle back in his body. He’d called her on Skype and, looking at her face on the screen, had felt closer to her than he ever had when she’d been visiting. He commented on this to Sarah at work and she’d scrunched her nose thoughtfully.

‘You only want her when she isn’t around,’ she diagnosed.

‘You’re a bloody solicitor not a shrink, what the hell would you know?’

Jack had laughed.

‘I like the unavailable ones, too,’ she’d answered, shrugging, and had given him a look which he’d been replaying in his mind ever since.

But this trip to Porto was one that had been planned for a while: he and Beatriz were celebrating five years together. He’d already booked tickets last year and bought her a white-gold bracelet. And, after all, she had told him how excited she was for him to arrive.

But for the first time ever, Beatriz hadn’t picked him up from the airport. It was a late flight and he’d asked her not to, but he had found himself scanning the crowd for her anyway. As he’d waited at baggage claim, his mind had offered him sly images of her expectant face on the other side—of course! She would have planned to surprise him. You told her not to come, he reminded himself, but his lips were already curving upwards; they had convinced themselves that she would be there. He’d hauled the block of his suitcase off the carousel and the metal of the handle felt as cold as 38,000 feet and 17,746 kilometres as he gripped it. But as he’d trundled through that final security gate, the only faces on the other side were those of strangers. Bored tour guides holding name-cards or locals in little clusters craning to see their loved ones coming through behind him. The women here looked like her— petite, with long dark hair worn loose around their shoulders. But no Beatriz in sight.

Jack had taken a taxi instead, giving the directions to her flat—their flat— in his halting Portuguese. He’d studied Spanish at school and still sometimes had to fight the urge to say gracias instead of obrigado. Porto’s streets had unspooled before him in cobbled undulations. Even in the street-lit darkness he could see the blue and green of the tile on every second townhouse. Despite having lived here, he had never quite gotten over the fading beauty of the place. The oceanic colours of the cracked tile would jolt him and he’d shake his head in wonder: I am living in another country. This from a boy who never thought he’d finish high school—the first in his family to get to university, the first to even live outside of Frankston. But now, driving past it in the flesh, he felt only a vague intellectual appreciation. You’re in fucking Porto, he admonished himself, but the old excitement lay dormant.

The first time he’d visited, Beatriz had taken him to the glossier Lisboa first. He’d walked the sunlit streets with her, listened to fado at night and tasted ginjinha, with its bell-like name, its tintinnabulation. It was the sort of word he wanted to say over and over again, just for the pleasure of shaping those sounds. Ginja, ginja, ginja! But Porto was something else. The Dark City he’d once heard it called, for its pathways were medieval and splashed in shadows. Although the city’s monuments were lit up at night in muted tungsten, there were great black patches between the streetlights. Yes, the city was darker and heavier than Lisboa, but Jack couldn’t think of it as The Dark City. That betrayed the richness of its history, the grandeur of its many bridges and all its triangles of greenery. To Jack, Porto would only ever be colourful—the river twisting below the city and the fluttering flags of washed clothes draped from twine across most balconies, all bright and beckoning.

When the taxi had finally halted at the street corner in Foz, the driver pocketed the 20 euro note. On the pavement in his winter coat, Jack had looked up at the building where light shone from the sixth floor windows. The apartment belonged to Beatriz’s parents, but they’d never lived there. It was a swanky kind of place, but Jack’s shoes were too loud, too heavy on the marble, and his plaid shirt clashed. The cables of the elevator pulled him soundlessly upwards and he got off on the sixth floor, right in front of the apartment they’d shared. Should he ring the doorbell? Or let himself in with the key on his chain? He’d hesitated and then pressed the button.

Then the door was swinging backwards and there she was. Beatriz. She looked different. Older, maybe.

‘Hola!’ she smiled as she trilled her greeting and slipped close to him. Thin arms circling around his middle, his nose and lips pressing against the crown of her head where her scent was strongest. He’d never been able to place it: some milky sort of shampoo and clean skin. Here, away from the harsh pixilation of Skype she was suddenly real again—the living breathing girl he’d fallen in love with five years ago. Shouldn’t that be better than a thumbnail on the screen? The familiarity of her face and all the tiny humanising flaws he had forgotten: her heavy eyebrows and the faint smile lines which already bracketed her mouth. She’d always felt to him like a puzzle piece falling into place, but now as he waited and expected that sensation to spread over him, he felt just as disconnected as he had standing outside the flat, staring at the front door.

‘Hola,’ he had replied and tried to kiss her just how he used to. But all he could feel was the residue of stale cabin air in his mouth and dusted over his skin.

Lost in thought, Jack was jolted back to reality when the oozing Francesinha sandwiches Beatriz had ordered for them arrived. The two of them started to eat, Jack scoffing the sauce with messy delight. Everyone else was starting their second glass of wine, while Jack was finishing his third—and scanning the room for the waitress to order a fourth. He drank more steadily and seriously than he did when they were at university and Beatriz looked annoyed.

‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough for now?’ she whispered sharply in his ear and he felt the flush erupt over his face.

‘I’m an Aussie,’ he joked stoutly. ‘We’ve never had enough.’ But he knew his shoulders had stiffened. Beatriz was fiddling with the stem of her own wine glass and he thought again of how obnoxious those nails looked. Those ridiculous white crescents.

Jack knew that he was trying—more than she was. Even her body language was a barrier: she had half turned away, her back a narrow shield against him as she chatted to the girls, but her leg still pressed up against him in their squeezed position. She was always composed. It wasn’t something she was growing into with age, she’d been like that even when he first met her in a campus bar in Edinburgh. The others had been typical twenty year olds, doing shots of Stolichnaya and screeching their drunken revelry. Beatriz had sat with a glass of wine and thoughts that he could see but not interpret behind her eyes. It had been exhilarating trying to get to know her; each little fragment of her that he sifted to the surface had required effort and patience. And so he had eventually come to know the person behind the reserve. She was studying art history and languages. He had thought that he’d won her with his humour, but she told Jack later that she’d first started liking him when she realised he always spoke about his parents with respect. Family was important to Beatriz. In truth, she was more often the one to make him laugh with her dry wit.

But now she sat perfectly upright, not a vertebra out of place—and Jack thought that she had become stiff as whipped egg white. She’d been different at university . . . Or maybe he had been. He wished that she’d loosen up a little. A girl like Sarah would sprawl. When they occasionally went out for after work drinks, Sarah would sit with her left ankle on her right knee, and she threw back her head when she laughed.

‘Your last night here?’ said João, startling Jack. It wasn’t really a question.

‘I fly home tomorrow,’ Jack agreed. He said the word home automatically and then paused, glanced over at Beatriz for her reaction, but her low voice was still in a flow of Portuguese with Carolina.

‘Home.’ It hadn’t gone unnoticed by João and he sounded surprised. He exchanged a glance with Tiago. ‘When are you coming back here?’

Jack hesitated.

‘Soon,’ he lied.

Both João and Tiago looked relieved. You two are so lovely together, everyone had always said. Jack and Beatriz were the success story—the exemplary couple, the iridescent aspiration. Wreathed in illusions.

The last time Jack had visited, he and Beatriz had happily sat arm in arm. The only thing he’d noticed about her nails was how good they felt stroking his skin, while Beatriz had laughed rather than jeered when he ordered an extra glass of green wine. And the last time they had had dinner with her five friends, the conversation had not splintered into little shards the way it had tonight. Denial was trying to cast its warm blanket over him once more, but Jack held it at bay and stood shivering in the shadows. What if he could no long measure Beatriz by decades or even years? One day not even this city of bridges and memories would help them span the chasm.

Realisation was thickening sourly inside him, curdling like dairy. Unanswerable questions coming unbidden from a voice he’d been trying to ignore all week: but what now? And the sudden premonition that one day he’d visit Porto for the last time. One day he would take the Lou Reed album he’d left in her CD holder and his old tartan scarf from the cupboard. Together forever, the solid gold aspiration of all young lovers and the dire lead weight which carried them down to drown. It bred complacency—and forever wasn’t something to be complacent about.

‘Look at you,’ Tiago chuckled, gesturing at Jack and Beatriz sitting so close, unaware of how it was necessity rather than desire which kept them pressed together. ‘Can’t keep you two away from each other.’

But, for now, Jack just smiled and raised his glass to João and Tiago.

Verge 2017 – Chimera

   by Bonnie Reid, Aisling Smith and Gavin Yates