I go to Lisbon on business fairly regularly. I get on a plane to go there, if not every month, then at least every six weeks or so. I understand the language well enough not to need an interpreter, having spent a good deal of my childhood and adolescence in Brazil, where my parents lived for some years, again for professional reasons.
I know the city reasonably well too. Places we travel to frequently eventually do start to feel familiar, at least superficially, even when, at a deeper level, almost everything about them makes us feel foreign.
It’s only natural, then, that many of the unusual things that happen in Lisbon no longer surprise me, as if I were, in a way, prepared for them. I was not, therefore, particularly annoyed (or at least I didn’t show it) when I realized that my (five-star) hotel had been overbooked, and the room already paid for by my agency was occupied by someone else, who had arrived before me.
The manager, moreover, was profuse in his apologies for this mistake—for which, however, he took no responsibility—and impeccable in the way he resolved the problem, placing at my disposal, at no extra cost, a suite which I believe he called “presidential,” and which was on the top floor of the hotel.
I smiled to myself when I saw just where I had ended up, thanks to this lack of efficiency, a lack which the manager appeared to attribute to the workings of fate or chance. I was now the sole inhabitant of a sumptuous apartment which could easily have accommodated an entire entourage, and which had doubtless housed the presidents of various countries and other people deemed to be VIPs purely because of the size of their bank accounts. To all those people from diverse worlds (from football or the movies, from banking, from politics or big business), everything in that suite would have spoken, as it did to me, of luxury, good taste and comfort, and the balconies would have opened, to them as to me, onto that same dazzling view of the city.
Not bad, I said to myself, and thought no more of the matter (not that it really required further thought) and turned my mind to other things. As usual, my two-day stay passed very quickly, each day spent in a succession of business meetings and ending with supper out, which meant that I always got back later than I would have liked. I hardly had time to notice the suite, since I was rarely there.
It was only on the last morning that I was able to take some pleasure in the luxurious place in which I found myself. I had a long soak in a bath that might more accurately have been described as a swimming pool, enjoyed a massage in a particularly sophisticated form of Jacuzzi, shaved in front of a whole wall of mirrors, and asked to have my breakfast out on the balcony. Then I got dressed and unhurriedly started packing; it was still only five past nine, check-in for my flight wasn’t until twenty past ten, and I knew that the taxi normally took no more than fifteen minutes from hotel to airport.
At one point, I realized, with some surprise, that I was not alone in the suite. Two women, two black maids—as I saw when I looked through the half-open door— were cleaning the vast sitting room next to my bedroom. They had probably entered the suite from the other side, where there was another door, and would already have cleaned several bedrooms, bathrooms, dressing rooms and two or three sitting rooms before reaching the room they were in now. They had not noticed my presence, occupied as they were with vacuum cleaners and dusters, and pushing along carts full of detergents, toiletries and fresh towels, and I myself had not seen them until then or heard them come in.
For a second, I considered asking them to leave and come back once I had gone, but the next moment, I decided against this. I would be leaving in a couple of minutes anyway, I thought. I fancied going for a little stroll along the street, under the jacarandas, before returning to the hotel to fetch my luggage and take a taxi. I turned my back on them and went over to the wardrobe, from which I started removing the few clothes I had brought with me.
That was when I heard what they were saying. One of them did most of the talking, while the other merely asked a question now and then or made the occasional sound. Theirs were two different and unequal voices.
The rain, I heard one of them say. It was because of the rain.
I put a blazer in my case, a suit and some underwear, and started folding up a shirt. I could hear the woman’s voice quite clearly.
It was because of the rain, she said again.
It hadn’t rained for a long time, and everything had started to die. Even the trees and the birds. People stumbled over the fallen bodies of dead birds.
I folded up a second shirt and put both shirts in the suitcase. I closed the case and scrambled the code by putting in a different combination of numbers.
Everything had dried up, cracks were appearing in the earth, I heard the woman say. Because of the lack of water. The earth had cracks in its skin. Animals were dying. People were dying. Children were dying. The stream dried up. The sky dried up. The leaves shriveled on the trees, and then the trees dried up too.
I peered between the door and the doorjamb. The woman speaking had stopped cleaning. The other woman had stopped too and was staring at her. At that moment, the floor cloth, the detergents and the cleaning cart had no real existence for them.
Then people in the village started to talk, the woman went on, more loudly this time. Or perhaps her voice only seemed louder because I had turned in her direction.
Someone was to blame for the drought. And then people started saying in the village that the woman was to blame.
Other people said it wasn’t. No one knew for sure. But the drought went on and everything went on dying.
Then they called in the witch doctor. They lit a fire and burned herbs, and he drank whatever he had to drink and spent all night murmuring words no one else could understand. In the morning, the Elders came, and he told them it was that woman’s fault. That’s what he said and everyone heard him. That woman had stolen the rain.
Then the Elders understood what was going to happen and they looked down at the ground because they felt sorry for the woman, who lived all alone, outside the village. Her husband had left her a long time before, and then her son had died and she had wept so much that her body had dried up, her eyes had dried up, she had turned into a withered trunk, bent toward the earth. She had become like a wild animal, she didn’t speak any more, she moaned and sometimes, at night, she screamed.
That woman, said the witch doctor, looking down at the ground. He lit a pipe and slowly blew out the smoke. She stole the rain.
But no one wanted to kill her. Even the witch doctor said it was not what he wanted.
Elders and witch doctor stood around, as if waiting. All the villagers sat under a tree and waited. And time stopped too and did not pass.
The woman telling the story paused for a moment, as if she, too, were waiting. The other woman didn’t ask any questions, but remained silent, eager to hear how the story would turn out.
Then a young man volunteered. I’ll go, he said. As if killing the woman and being killed were one and the same thing.
The woman paused again. They were somewhere else, in another place, to which the story had taken them. I opened the door wider and peered curiously out at them. I was certain now that they wouldn’t notice my presence.
The woman talking was plump, with a broad, bespectacled face. She had a strong, well-modulated voice and made gestures with her hands and her body. Sometimes she changed the expression on her face and her tone of voice, as if she were taking on the various different characters. The other woman wore a scarf tied around her head; she was thinner and younger and seemed much less assured than the first woman.
He went to her hut and spent the night with her. He slept with her and made love to her. He touched her down there, touched her breasts and her hair, he stroked her tenderly and then clasped her in his arms, as if he were going to make love to her again, he held her tighter and tighter around her neck until she suffocated. And then he came out of the hut, carrying the dead woman in his arms, and lay her down on the ground, and everyone walked around the body in silence.
She stopped talking for a moment and wiped the sweat from her brow with her forearm.
And then it began to rain, said the woman. Then it began to rain.
The two women looked at each other, without speaking. Then they shook their heads, sighed wearily and resumed their cleaning.
I looked at my watch because I had no idea how much time had passed. Only a few minutes, I realized. Seven minutes. I wouldn’t need those seven minutes, I thought. I still had plenty of time. And yet I suddenly felt uneasy.
I picked up my suitcase, flung open the door, making as much noise as I could, and stalked past the two women, who stared at me in surprise, uttering a horrified “Ah!,” as if they had seen a ghost.
I threw them a brusque “Good morning” and strode over to the elevator.
Check-in at ten twenty, I thought, pressing the button and feeling the elevator beginning to descend. There was something about that whole story which had left me feeling slightly on edge, something about that whole incredible female conversation which I had, for some irrational reason, stopped to listen to, I, who never eavesdrop on conversations, least of all on women’s conversations. I looked at my watch again and calculated how much time separated me from the city where I lived, in another part of Europe.
Only when the plane had taken off did I begin to see things differently. I had spent two days in Lisbon and, for the price of a standard room, I had, I told myself, occupied an improbably large suite; it must have had fifteen rooms, as well as vast balconies and a bath the size of a swimming pool. And then, suddenly, I had opened one of the doors and found, in the next room, a piece of Africa, perfectly intact, like an area of virgin jungle. For seven minutes, exactly seven minutes, I had been lost in the jungle.
I smiled to myself, imagining telling all this to someone else, for example, to the passenger beside me or to the stewardess who had just brought me a whisky. They would think I was drunk or mad.
But I wasn’t drunk or mad, I thought, smiling again and leaning back in my seat. There was nothing wrong with me at all. It was probably just Lisbon that was strange.