It’s five past ten at night, lessons are over and a group of us are standing outside the school looking for the taxis which are cruising down the feed-road of the wide Avenida. In a couple of minutes we manage to flag one down and start the exhilarating ten-minute ride down to Cais do Sodré station; the lights are with us as we race through Rossio Square, rattling down the tram-lines of the Rua Augusta and finally running along the river to be finally deposited outside the station. There is just time for a quick coffee and brandy at the stand-up station-bar before catching the 10.30 train.
I choose a carriage towards the end of the train and get a corner seat. It’s dark outside now of course, so I’m not distracted by the view as I am on the journey into Lisbon.
(The line from Cascais follows the coast, first on the open sea then the southern shore of the great estuary about five miles across and finally on the river itself – the Tagus, one the great rivers of Europe, which rises in the Sierra de Albarracín in eastern Spain and flows westward across the peninsular for about a thousand km until it empties itself into the Atlantic ocean).
Soon I’m absorbed in my book – I’ve just discovered Italo Calvino and frankly he’s boggling my mind – this story is called The Baron in the Trees – it’s about a recalcitrant and stubborn boy in 18th century northern Italy, who climbs up a tree in the garden one evening and, on being called down by the cook to eat his dinner, simply refuses to climb down, declaring that if necessary he would spend the rest of his life up a tree … I study the back of the book; the writer is described as a post-modern fabulist; I mentally add this new word to my vocabulary and turn back to the text.
Suddenly the sound of a loud, unpleasant and whining voice in the central corridor, invoking the name of Our Lady of the Sorrows and Miracles to please give alms for a wretched man crippled in the war overseas, breaks in on my concentration.
It is the Beggar. What he does is to work the length of the train: starting at the top at Cais de Sodré, hopping into the second carriage at Alcântara-Mar, the third at Caxias and so on. By the time he reaches my carriage we are between Oeiras and Carcavelos. He is unshaven, on crutches and is wearing a long dirty brown coat; he seems to have sprayed himself with people-repellent.
Not for the first time I study his technique; he staggers lurching down the aisle, constantly wailing his mantra and bumping into people. He is a thoroughly objectionable, obnoxious and obstreperous individual and most of the passengers shrink away in distaste; a few feel sorry for his plight and give him money; others give him a coin as if to say: now leave me alone, get the hell out of my face! Past Parede, where one can still hear him in the next carriage, imploring Our Lady of the Assumption and of the Conception to give alms … and so to my stop, São João do Estoril, where I get off.
As the lighted train pulls away I stand on the platform breathing in the sea-air; it is cooler here than in the city and I turn away to walk the few leafy streets home. I notice someone in front of me, also from the train. He has straightened up and is striding briskly away, the coat and crutches tucked under his arm. It is the Beggar. He stops in front of a neat, well-maintained little house, fishes out a key from his pocket and lets himself in.
I walk the remaining distance to my house, bemused. You just couldn’t make that kind of thing up, I think, you really couldn’t. My friends won’t believe me when I tell them; they’ll just think I’m being a fabulist.