PART 2 – THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TAGUS
I should have known better than to do the final part of the voyage on foot. Lisbon, with its many hills was not a city for a casual walk. Especially when you’re towing one bag behind you and have another on your back. To compound my toils, the day hadn’t even properly started but the temperature was already approaching 27 degrees Celsius. I was wilting.
Still, this is part of my ritual. For every novel I have ever written, I have walked the final two or three miles to the guesthouse where I would re-arrange the ideas in my head into a coherent story. I walked the Royal Mile – and then some – for The Cowgate Gallows, climbed the meandering hills surrounding Fort-de-France for Deadly Rhum and traversed the grey, stately relics of Soviet occupation in the Eastern part of Berlin before penning Mörder, Alexanderplatz. Why should Lissabon warrant an exception? So on I toiled, seeking refuge under the foliage of the numerous small parks in the city, in between the arduous climbs.
These walks are an important part of my writing process. They allow me to get a sense of the city I have hand-picked as a location for yet another hard-boiled, bloody novel. The main gist of the plot I would always have in my head – sometimes even written down – before I board the plane, cobbled together from the grizzliest stuff in tabloids and Wikipedia snippets about the most photogenic places in the city (from a literary standpoint). But people don’t read novels for the plot or the sightseeing highlights. They read it for the details. Just think about it. What was the last book you read? And what do you remember about it? I bet it’s a detailed description of a street or neighbourhood you’d never even heard of. And I bet when you finally visited that city, you went there first to see if the author had done it right. If he was any good, he would have aced it. And if the circulation numbers of my novels are something to go by, I’m good.
So I walked the streets of Lisbon and took in the atmosphere. The first thing I noticed was that as a capital it was unlike any other I had visited in Europe. It had none of the speed that London is infused with, nor the breathing room of Berlin, or the bureaucratic chaos of Brussels. Even compared to its Mediterranean cousins, Madrid and Rome, there was something off here, something not quite European, not quite grand and self-important enough. You sensed history in its buildings, yet not the shadow of the ages. As if all Lisbon’s past was but an invention of more recent architects, who had moulded a genuine nostalgia into an artificial present. Lisbon would look somehow less out of place in the New Continent than the Old one, odd as that may seem. Yet there it lay, in front of me, in this Southern corner of Europe.
The cobbled street leading up to the apartment I had booked was atypical of the city. Here you could still smell the decay of the Middle Ages. This part of town the architects had not yet reached, apparently. Sure, some of the houses clad themselves in blue or orange, but it was easy to see past the varnish and spot the crumbling. In twenty years’ time this street would either have to fall in line with other parts of the city or not exist at all. But that was the way I liked my yearly hide-outs: tucked away in a pocket of the city, not with a bow tie around them, like the garishly decorated tourist traps in Alfama.
‘I’m so sorry’ greeted me when I walked the wooden stairway towards the first floor. ‘You’re apartment is not yet clean’, Leila continued, in surprisingly proficient English, adding once again ‘I’m so sorry’. I looked at my watch. Despite my dislike for temperatures that exceed 25 degrees and the hilly path, I somehow had arrived thirty minutes before the hour we had agreed to exchange keys on.
‘Here, let me help you with your bags.’
Leila was a bit older than thirty, but she hid it well, behind a raven-black, indifferent hairdo and a nose piercing so befitting her I only noticed it on her second sorry. Grovelling girls have never done it for me, but she was ticking enough other boxes not to be immediately annoyed.
‘We had said one o’clock?’
‘We had. But what’s half an hour, right?’
Leila smiled meekly. She was clearly more uncomfortable with the situation than I was.
‘It’s not cleaned up yet. And I wouldn’t want you to stay a week in a dirty apartment.’
The apartment didn’t seem too unclean to my eyes. The kitchen didn’t have a dirty pot or pan in it and the adjoining sofa was seemingly free of lint. A handful of towels was strewn across the small bathroom to the left but, apart from the buckets of soapy water Leila was trying to hide under the small writing desk this was not an apartment in disarray. I had stayed in worse hellholes in my life. Yet Leila was fidgeting with her fingers to such a degree that she all but convinced me the place was a disaster.
‘Here, let me first give you your keys. The small one’s for the outside door, the little one for the apartment itself.’
She avoided all eye contact as she gave me the keys and then persisted in handing me an assortment of plasticized pieces of paper containing such important info as the Wi-Fi access, important landmarks I should definitely see (most of which I had already stumbled upon during my Wikipedia research) and a selection of the best restaurants, bars and cafés in the neighbourhood.
Since she was too polite to ask what she was clearly aching to ask, it was I who provided her way out.
‘What would you say if I just started discovering the neighbourhood already? That should take me a couple of hours. Time enough to clean up this mess, I would think.’
You could almost literally see the weight being lifted of her shoulders.
‘Thank you, mister. That would be perfect. Are you sure you don’t want to freshen up first? You could use the downstairs bathroom.’
‘Don’t worry about it. With this weather, I’ll be sweating like a pig anyway when I walk into town. I’ll just leave my bags here?’
‘Yeah, of course. I’ll put them in the bedroom when I’m finished.’
Only when I walked out the front door and heard voices emanating from my apartment – one Leila’s, the other a distinctly gruffly male – I realised that the whole time I was in the place Leila had been blocking my view of the bedroom door. The male had been hiding in there, surely. I’m guessing it was her boyfriend and they had been frolicking after the previous occupant had vacated the premises. That would explain why Leila hadn’t had enough time to clean thing up. Their exchange was quite heated, that I got, even though I don’t speak a word of Portuguese. But – for the moment at least – the only thing I thought was that it would perhaps make a nice anecdote in my book, just before the unlucky house guest would discover a body dangling from her backyard balcony.
The city had reached its warmest point of the day and so I headed for the Tagus, hoping a cold breeze would ease the incessant sweating. The river was just a ten minute walk away and mostly downhill, making for a pleasant stroll along the padaria’s that cropped up on nearly every corner, their terraces populated by seasoned men drinking their coffee and eating their sweet pastries. As I had suspected most tourists had not yet discovered this part of town. The neighbourhood would make for a fine arena for the book, halfway between the liveliness of the busy Alfama area and the solemn São João cemetery, a perfect metaphor for the state I was planning to plunge my protagonist into.
The closer I got to the river, the more I got away from the Lisbon I had hoped to discover, as I was forced to dodge a fleet of honking tuk-tuk’s navigating the narrowing streets with fat Americans in the back seat, snapping pictures of the surroundings as they wheezed passed it. Ominous too were the high-rising cruise ships that told of more tackiness to come. As I reached the Terreira de Paço square, my fears seemed justified. The monumental place was a sight to behold with its Roman arches and striking yellow wall paint, but it might as well have been situated in Firenze or Madrid. If the square had anything unique about it, it was swiftly disposed of by the hordes of tourists invading the terraces, drinking Heineken or Perrier.
Still looking to be as close as I could to the cold breeze of the Tagus, I rejected the prospect of a cool drink and followed the leisurely walkway past the water, where many others, foreigners and locals alike, had stumbled upon the same idea. The breeze soothed but could not totally dissipate the heath. Luckily I was clad completely in white, so the sweat stains on my shirt would not be obvious to detect, though their smell would prove harder to mask.
As much as I’ve never been a fan of hot weather, at least the sunglasses allow me to ogle the passers-by without them noticing. I took advantage of that as I passed the docking stones that proved irresistible to Lisbon’s youngsters, who used the stones to sit and tan their skin, contorting their bodies in poses that would not seem out of place on a Vanity Fair cover. One youth in particular caught my eye, a scantily clad girl in her low-twenties with huge sunglasses, striking a pose that was half Little Mermaid, half Jenna Jameson. Though she was well below an age that was proper for a man mine, she screamed sex in a way that was hard to ignore and as I walked passed her, for a moment, I thought she acknowledged my horniness with a consenting wink.
The ferry ride cooled me off considerably, but the girl never truly left my thoughts as I disembarked on the other bank of the Tagus, looking from a distance to the city I was setting my next novel in. She would figure in it of course. The femme fatale who would set the plot in motion. The churlish girl who played with grown men’s minds and made them forget they were just a cog in her devious, murderous plans.
‘A penny for your thoughts’, a female voice next to me suddenly exclaimed.
It was her. The girl on the docking stone. The wind played with her blonde hair to make her look even more enticing.
‘Nothing in particular’, I replied, trying my best to sound casual.
‘What brings you to Lisbon then? People always have a reason to be somewhere.’
‘Have I read anything of yours?’
‘Do you like mystery novels?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think you avoid reading in general.’
She removed her glasses. Her emerald eyes didn’t blink at all.
‘You don’t think I’m smart?’
‘You’re smart. Just not book smart.’
‘I’m Carmo’, she said.
Her shake was firmer than that of most males.
‘I noticed you looking at me. At the other side of the river.’
‘Don’t most guys?’
‘Why did you follow me?’
‘Who says I did?’
She was clearly playing coy and I, despite knowing better, was close to taking the bait.
‘Do all your answers end with a question mark?’ I asked.
‘Ask me another and maybe you’ll get an exclamation mark.’
‘Why did you follow me?’
This time I did indeed get an exclamation mark.
‘I want you to kill a man.’
To be continued …