During the time that I lived in Estoril in the early 80s, in a street behind the Hotel Paris there was a small, dreary failed shopping centre, in the empty concrete bowels of which, we came across the Angolan Bar.
Basic furniture, orange plastic chairs and white tables, dirty concrete floor, a juke-box and a pinball machine, one entered it dramatically through glass-doors onto a square platform from which one descended some grey concrete steps; so that each newcomer was under brief scrutiny (which could be quite off-putting at first).
The habitués of this curious dive were mostly returnees from the former Portuguese African colonies, Cabo Verde, Angola and Mozambique. After the 25th April revolution in 1974 the new communist government abruptly granted all the African possessions independence, and a flood of more than a million mostly destitute people returned to Portugal, angry and disoriented. This imposed a severe social and economic strain, as the mother-country, one the smallest economies in Western Europe, struggled to absorb this influx.
The atmosphere of the bar subconsciously reflected this; there were undercurrents of past expansiveness and present cramped privation, as the inhabitants of the bar, black and white, drank cold thin beer in tall glasses along the bar. It was a tribute to their impartiality that we were accepted there.
I would drop in from time to time, perhaps after having dinner at a restaurant in Cascais. Life for us language teachers living along the line was a Kingdom of Cockayne in those days.
One night three of us were lounging at a table with our brandies when a tall black man came in, sharply dressed in a long black leather coat and a gold chain round his neck; he had a side-kick with him. They went to the bar and after ordering beers, spoke with Tiago the barman who nodded in our direction. They sauntered over to our table and introduced themselves as Morgan and Kev from (the manor) of Hackney in north London. They were knowing, self-confident fellows but genial and polite. We got into conversation: they were exploring the possibilities of the scene down here, possibly as an alternative to the south of Spain, for their associates back in London. I was wearing my usual scruffy T-shirt and jeans but happened to be wearing my gold signet ring and a gold Omega watch (which I hadn’t yet sold). For some reason Morgan got it into his head that I shared his marginal criminality and was lying low, skulking here on the Estoril coast. Every time I tried to extricate myself from this misapprehension I only managed to dig myself deeper into a hole:
– Well Tom, what’s your «job» here?
– I’m an English teacher actually, teaching English as a foreign language.
– Yeah I like it, Tom, like it but don’t you have to know Portuguese for that job?
– No not really, that’s the beauty of it, you see it’s based on a direct method of teaching whereby only the target language is used right from the beginning …
– So me and Kev here could get into this line of work?
– Well yes I suppose so, as long as you’ve had the requisite training and showed a flair for the job-
– Yeah, «requisite» «flair», good words, I like it … so what are the hours like?
– The hours are good, that can’t be denied; we only work in the evenings, so we have the rest of the day free to go to the beach or whatever …
– … Whatever projects you happen to be working on yeah I like your style Tom.
– I spend a lot of time just walking the old streets of Lisbon, observing the peculiarities of the architecture, having lunch in out-of-the-way cafés and reading my book – it’s a pretty relaxing life after North Africa.
– Oh, so you worked in Africa, did you?
– Yes, I did three contracts out there in all …
– Say no more, I can respect another man’s privacy. It looks like you’ve got a nice little number going for you here, nice, tasty. I like your style, Tom.
The two rose to leave, Morgan still shaking his head in admiration. My two companions, laconic New Zealanders, had been quietly enjoying the joke:
watch out for Tom, they said ironically, he’s the arch-criminal of Cascais who’s been doing over all these houses, we’ve been reading about lately in the Anglo-Portuguese News.