A short story for Christmas 2022 by Vee Walker
Copyright of the author: reproduction with written consent only
It was the noise he had not expected, as the teapot slipped from his grasp to shatter into a million shards across the polished terrace tiles of the Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel.
In the quiet gardens below, a slight woman in her fifties looked up in surprise. Oh dear, she thought. Someone will be for it. Gonçales was not one to put up with mistakes of that nature.
Faith had almost taken afternoon tea up there herself that day. She had imagined the comfortable familiarity of the exquisitely light sandwiches and dainty cakes. It was something she had often done with Gerald on his birthday or their anniversary: but at the last minute instead she had asked Gonçales if he would mind if she went down and strolled in the hotel grounds. ‘Senhora Southgate. Of course.’ His eyes had brimmed briefly with professional compassion, before he turned to click his fingers, allocating her table to a couple of delighted tourists, lurking in case of just such an opportunity.
Faith walked along the terrace and down the steps and wandered along the pebble-cobbled path as far as she could go She stood there for a long time beneath the ancient palms, quite still, looking out towards the cloud-laden horizon.
On the terrace above, guests had jumped to their feet in consternation at the noise and mess. Senior staff appeared from nowhere, profuse with apology, calling for brooms, for fresh tea. As soon as he heard the phrase ‘of course, no question of a charge, madam,’ the waiter knew he was doomed.
He had already said he was sorry to the large, loud British lady with blue hair but she had ignored him to point out his name label, with incomprehensible mirth, to her companion. ‘Well – that explains a lot, Sue,’ she said with a smirk, dabbing at her linen trousers, now now extensively mottled with lemon verbena tea-leaves.
Manuel had not really wanted to work at the Reid’s Palace anyway. He had tried to secure a job with his cousin Ricardo at the café of the Jardim Municipal, but they had just taken on a youngster full-time. Ricardo’s uncle had however worked as a pastry chef in the Reid’s kitchen for years. He wangled Manuel the job off the back of the sob story: an unforeseen change of fortune leading to a return from London, England, to his parental home. And a job was a job, nao?
Any Madeiran (unless perhaps they were his parents) could relate to this kind of broken dream with compassion.
Manuel stood before the manager’s desk, on to which he had just placed the smart white uniform with its stiff collar. The man eyed him, wearily, but not unkindly. ‘This is not the standard of service we uphold at the Belmond Reid’s Palace. And it is not as though it is the first time, Rodrigues, is it?’
‘I know. It is just, you know, those teapots are heavy, the tables very small…’ He could see the fancy porcelain tea-sets had been commissioned without the least practicality in mind, probably even without measuring the tiny tables they were to grace. Manuel was a practical man and had been mentally redesigning a rather better set when the teapot had slipped from his grasp, mid-pour.
‘…maybe so, but no-one else has smashed a teapot, stained a guest’s clothing and entirely disrupted tea service today. Have they?’
The point was unanswerable.
‘I like you, Rodrigues. I do. You are a good waiter when you are being a waiter and your spoken English is remarkable, but today, you forgot your job. Again. It is hard to come home, I know, and your head, I think it is often still in England. Sim?’
Manuel looked at the floor, humiliated. How could he protest otherwise? He nodded assent.
His manager was writing a number on a piece of paper. ‘Look. I think, perhaps, a different place to work, more relaxed, that might work better for you? I will speak to my sister tonight. Ring her tomorrow, OK? Good luck, Rodrigues. Boa tarde.’
With that, and an envelope containing his outstanding pay, he was dismissed.
As Manuel made his way to the Rodoeste bus stop he passed an entirely unremarkable woman in a lavender dress. He would have missed her altogether if she had not stumbled, reaching out to grasp the hibiscus-covered railing, giving a little moan as she did so. ‘Madam?’ he asked, quickly doubling back. ‘Are you unwell? Shall I escort you back into the hotel?’
‘No, no. Not there…’ Gerald was everywhere, even in the dappled sunlight on the cobbles of the gardens below the Reid’s Palace. ‘…just give me a moment. It’s just a silly dizzy spell.’ Only then did Manuel notice the neat surgical dressing on one side of her temple, half-concealed by a straight grey fringe.
‘I am fine, really,’ she said, opening blue-grey eyes with a ghost of a smile, ‘I had an accident a few weeks ago. From time to time everything still just spins. I was going to walk back into Funchal to get some air, but…’
‘No, that is not wise. Let me get you a taxi.’ Manuel flicked his fingers at the watching doorman. ‘Where are you going?’
A good question.
Thank you,’ replied the woman faintly, adding, after a curious pause, ‘I think I am going to the Cathedral.’
Manuel rapidly reasoned that he had nothing better to do and that the lift would probably save him the bus fare. ‘My shift has just ended, madam. I am going in that direction too. Allow me to see you there safely?’ She looked at him and appeared to make a judgement of his character from her brief scrutiny. ‘Thank you. If you’re sure? That would be very kind.’
In the taxi the woman was not especially talkative. Manuel ascertained that she had injured her head in a boating accident, that was all. He said it could happen to anyone, while thinking privately that tourists really should not be allowed out of the Funchal Marina unaccompanied.
Once at the Cathedral, she paid for the taxi, as he had hoped. He could see she had regained a little of the colour in her face and so he left her there, turning for the bus station with a wave of his hand.
Faith said Obrigada and paused on the steps, watching him go. How nice ordinary people could be, she thought, fighting back tears, before turning to enter the great tranquil building, bright with gilding and now bedecked with the glorious greens and reds of Advent. She stumbled again, but this time over the uneven polished marble hat adorning the tomb of some cardinal or other. Perhaps he had been buried there as an act of piety. Or as a warning to sinners?
The crack of wood on bone.
The ancient building enfolded her into its dark and golden heart.
Sitting on his bus as it wound its way up above the clouds, Manuel was thinking, as usual, about his daughter. Mehal was ten years old and he missed her so much it hurt. He tried not to think about his wife – he could not quite think of her as his former wife, his ex-wife, not yet – but she was the mother of his child. Their child.
The business had been going so well: the cleaning had begun as an enterprise where they themselves had cleaned the houses, but soon they had recruited more staff, all hard-working fellow Portuguese-speakers. Then his wife had had the idea of expanding into a car valeting business, and Manuel had worked longer and longer hours. Had then returned unexpectedly early one day to find his life changed forever between two heartbeats, as he heard his wife laugh, throatily, upstairs, and a stranger’s voice reply.
Manuel had turned on his heel, slamming his way out of the house to make sure they understood, then changed his mand and stormed back in just as his rival was coming downstairs. Manuel had grabbed him by his expensive lapels and slammed his smug head against the wall, until his wife screamed at him to stop and he faltered, for what was the point, when all was broken. The man was through the front door and gone before he could so much as look at him. Only later did his wife identify the fellow as one of their earliest valeting clients. Manuel remembered then that she had commented at the time that this man looked a little like Cristiano Ronaldo. So while he, Manuel, had been buffing up the paintwork of his bright red Porsche, they…
He did not speak to his wife, although she tried to speak to him. He could not look at her, could not say her name to others. He stayed only to make sure that things felt right for Mehal, but slept on the sofa that night. The following day he had walked her to school, hugged her fiercely and said that Daddy was going away on business for a while. Then he left on the first flight to Madeira that he could catch, refusing all food and drink on the plane, his fists and heart still clenched. Curled around his phone in the departure and arrival halls, he willed the phone screen to bring him the message from her to say it was all a terrible mistake, and to beg his forgiveness.
When the message came, it told him instead that she loved this man and he her; that their affair had already lasted for more than a year; that she had wanted to tell him on so many occasions but it had been too difficult. And she said he, Manuel, had worked too hard, they had become like strangers. He threw his phone across his tiny childhood room at that, cracking the screen against the rough plaster of the wall, but it did no good.
That had been eleven months ago. He had not contested the divorce, for what would have been the point. She took the house – it was Mehal’s home, how could he fight that – and liquidised her stake in the business too, which had meant a swift, cheap sale to an eager competitor.
And now here he was, living once more on his parent’s smallholding in a room with a window overlooking the family banana plantation. It was worse than if he had never left, for then, he would not have known what it was to have everything and then to lose it all.
Why here and not the little English church? Faith shivered at the recent memory of the funeral: an ordeal from beginning to end, crowded with Gerald’s sailing friends. Some attended, she suspected, purely to see how Gerald’s mousy widow was bearing up. Worst of all, at the wake, Gerald’s best friend Colin, a widower himself, had got drunk and told her she could not possibly now manage alone. He had made it very plain that he expected, after a decent interval, to step into Gerald’s shoes.
No. She needed somewhere warmer, somewhere kinder to retreat to and try to order her thoughts.
She gazed a while at the crib, smiling at the simple gifts of passionfruit and bread left at the feet of the jumbo baby Jesus. Why was He quite so huge? She wondered fleetingly if an unwelcome visitor had pocketed the infant of the correct size, leading the priests to decide on a cuckoo-in-the-nest approach. Crimes could occur in the most unexpected of places, after all.
Colin had been one of the reasons Gerald had decided to move to Madeira, as he had lived there during his own naval years. As Colin told everyone through his over-long eulogy, Gerald’s first love was – had always been – the sea. The wretched man kept breaking down as he read it. All Faith could think of was how annoyed Gerald would be at such emotional behaviour.
What might it be like, she wondered timidly, to have a child of her own to support her now? They had tried for a few years, of course, when Gerald was on leave, but then their efforts had faltered, initially to Faith’s relief, then, once she realised the finality of it, to her sorrow. ‘No point in shedding tears over what’s not for you,’ he had said, surprised to find her snuffling into a hankie one day in the kitchen. ‘Now buck up, old thing, and make us some lunch, eh?’ As they ate their (white, sliced) bread and (Heinz Cream of Tomato) soup, all further talk was of his new yacht and the next race.
Colin should have been crewing that race day, of course, which the Madeiran press had taken to calling the Day of the Great Wave. He had inconsiderately (in Gerald’s view) broken his ankle the day before the last and longest day of the Madeira Sailing Club season, the one Gerald would plan for and anticipate all year.
Faith remembered the dread she had felt when Gerald slammed down the phone and turned to her to tell her she would ‘have to do’ as his crew.
Gerald had first brought Faith to Madeira on honeymoon when she was an awkward nineteen year old and he over twice her age (but a good catch, her mother had said so). They had stayed at the Reid’s Palace then, in a room with a tiny balcony overlooking the bay. ‘The old formula. Half my age plus seven! Hah!’ Gerald trotted that one out to the (impervious) hotel staff and then at every cocktail party they attended in those early years: until they both grew older and greyer and their difference in years ceased to be as significant.
In England Faith had settled into life as a naval wife quite readily, finding it easy enough to fill her days with charity committee work and various craft pursuits. Gerald’s retirement was however quite a different matter. She had struggled to adapt to his constant presence and especially to his expectations of three meals a day and a bit of baking in between, eh? His suggestion – no, more than that – his assumption that she would comply with the prospect of Madeira as their home in retirement was correct. Faith needed a change of scene too, if for different reasons.
Faith had bought a Linguaphone course and began to teach herself Portuguese. ‘What on earth do you want to bother with all that for?’ Gerald had scoffed in genuine perplexity. ‘The thing about these Madeirans is that they all speak such bloody marvellous English.’ After the move he would become impatient when she tried to order from the menu in stumbling Portuguese, talking over her with a brusque ‘yes, yes. Two white coffees and make it snappy, eh?’ Nonetheless, she learned enough to be able to communicate in basic Portuguese and that gave her a small sense of accomplishment.
She now made her way to the cathedral pew which gave her a sideways view of Our Lady of Fatima. As usual, the heavy-crowned statue’s dark and compassionate eyes appeared to seek her out. In spite of her name, Faith was not particularly religious and could not account for the sense of connection she felt with this plaster effigy among so many. Unless it was that the painted rays (presumably emanating from her sanctity) reminded her of the stormy light on the horizon on the day of the race. She had the sense somehow that the Lady had been present, that she understood how terrible it had been.
They were in second place when the vicious offshore easterly kicked up out of nowhere, sending racing vessels, including the safety boats, spinning in a multitude of different directions. Suddenly they found themselves alone, miles offshore, on a stretch of open sea as the seas heaved and the heavens split. Gerald’s warning cry of ‘Watch out, you bloody stupid woman!’ came too late. The boom caught her on the side of the head and sent her flying into the stern, snapping the rudder, seconds before the vast wave crashed over them.
Her knuckles tightened on the pew-back as the eyes of Our Lady of Fatima caught and held her own. The boom. The rudder. That sickening crunch of wood against bone. Could she ever rid her mind of it all?
‘Well, I do not know what we are to do with him,’ Sandrina said to Maria a few weeks later, the senior staff at the busy restaurant and gift shop Varadouro in Câmara de Lobos. ‘Just look at him. He greets one, then maybe two customers. Then he just stands there, staring into space, as they pass our menu and get snapped up by Diogo next door.’ She gestured to the empty tables. See? It is lunchtime. Three cruise ships are in. We should be full!’
Maria smilingly completed a sale of a striped Madeira T-shirt to a plump tourist, thanking her in flawless German. ‘Early days. Give him a bit more time,’ she said kindly. ‘Look. Now he is talking to someone.’
‘Yes,’ hissed Sandrina. ‘But see who it is… she will not eat here, will she?’
Faith walked past the line of restaurant staff (whom Gerald had always referred to disparagingly as hookers) smiling and shaking her head to to every offer of a menu, a table. Then one voice said, ‘Senhora. How is the head?’ and stopped her in her tracks.
‘Oh. Oh, goodness, it’s you, isn’t it…’
‘Manuel, of course. But don’t you work at…’
‘…not every day,’ he said hastily. ‘Would you like…’
‘…to see your menu? Thank you, but I just ate. At home.’
‘Perhaps a beer? A coffee then? A pastel de nata?
She smiled again and there in the sunlight he thought she was perhaps a little younger than he had first believed. He showed her to a table and soon established that she lived in Madeira and had done so for many years. The coffee arrived. He watched her bite into the pastel de nata, and was shocked to feel himself respond. She complimented his English. He told her he had lived in London, had had a business there. Told her in a flood of words about his wife and about Mehal and how much he missed his little one.
Then he saw Maria watching him. He realised that he had actually sat down at the woman’s table, introduced himself and been talking to her for a good ten minutes. Standing up again so fast he almost knocked over an elderly Dutch customer Sandrina was showing to his seat, he asked Faith, a little desperately, if she would now like to buy a handbag.
‘A handbag? Why would I want a handbag?’ Faith looked at the younger man, then at the other restaurant staff. ‘Ah. Are you in trouble?’
‘A little, perhaps.’ He flushed. He needed this job, yes, but did not want this woman to see how much.
‘Well, perhaps this old bag is also a little heavy.’ Gerald had given it to her for a birthday, or Christmas perhaps. It was one of many leather handbags piled in the bottom of the wardrobe where his suits still hung. ‘Come on then, show me your bag selection – Manuel.’
Minutes later Faith left the Varadouro shop clutching a cork bag she did not need. Tourist tat, Gerald would have called it: but she noticed, with surprise and appreciation, how light it was, and liked its pretty printing of blue azulejos. She decided to keep and use it and strolled on down the quay, smiling at the statue of old Sir Winston, eternally painting the bay.
‘So?’ said Manuel to Sandrina, hopefully.
‘So. You sold a 40E bag to a woman who clearly did not want it but felt sorry for you. Otherwise she spent 6E on one cup of coffee and a cake and was here for one hour. During this time, several families walked past who could have filled that table and all the others and spent ten times more.’
‘Sinto muito. You see, I met her already, the lady…’
‘So you know who she is?’ demanded Sandrina. ‘Senhora Southgate? She is that yacht widow. It was in the paper. The one whose husband drowned on the Day of the Great Wave.’
‘That terrible storm. Poor souls,’ added Maria, piously crossing herself. ‘That is their villa, see, up there on the clifftop. She sits on the balcony and looks at the sea, all day sometimes.’
Manuel lasted another two weeks at the Varadouro. The final straw for Sandrina was when, as he gazed across the bobbing boats in the bay to the balcony above, he allowed a cheese and tomato omelette to slither into the lap of a regular customer. The gentleman was very nice about it, and being British, still insisted on eating it, but all the same.
Sandrina could not have been kinder when she fired him. ‘It is no good, meu amigo. You are simply the worst hoj we have ever had,’ she said sweetly, one arm around his shoulder. ‘Look. Christmas is coming. The lights will be switched on at the weekend. Maybe you can help your mum and dad with the chestnut stall? And maybe think about what it is you want, Manuel, sim?’
A week after this, Manuel Rodruigez was sitting on a three-legged stool, under a smoky, striped Madeiran awning on the promenade in central Funchal the day the Christmas lights were switched on. It had been some years since he had seen this and their twinkling splendour took him by surprise. They were instantly everywhere, it seemed, delicately sparkling up every tree, enhancing every lamp-post, flickering along every tiny road snaking up the steep hills above the town. As he gazed, the knife with which he had been slicing open chestnuts slipped, nicking his thumb. He cursed under his breath. His mother dismissed him with a jerk of her head. ‘Blood and castanhas do not mix. Go, boy. Walk, look at the lights. Until it stops flowing.’
‘Until he finds his wits, you mean.’ His father’s grumble was meant to be overheard. There were two kinds of Madeirans to his parents – those who stayed and those who left. They had never visited him in London. Now he had returned they had made room for him again but did not quite know who he was. They had not once spoken about his wife. The photograph he had sent of Mehal as a baby was still propped up on the dresser but the photograph of their wedding day had gone. The day he arrived home, his mother had just made a bit more cozido, his father had handed him a knife and they had gone out together in silence to tend the banana plants which grew in front of their small, precious chestnut wood. Nothing was said. Nothing would ever be said.
Faith was also startled by the lights – she had forgotten that it was the day of the switch-on – and turned away from their brightness towards the dark face of the sea, now reflecting a million tiny stars. She had taken a decision: she would soon return to England. There was too much sea here. Too many memories she could never escape. In her head, the cycle began again. The boom. The rudder. The crunch of wood on bone.
As he walked, Manuel took snaps of the miraculous lights and WhatsApped them to Mehal. She messaged back that she and her Mum loved them and he felt his heart contract. It was then he looked up and caught sight of a familiar figure some distance ahead. He quickened his step, trying to keep sight of her among the excited crowds, faces and phones turned upwards to the brilliant lights. He lost her, looking all around, then thought he glimpsed her silhouette. She was walking out along the unlit concrete breakwater inside the pebble beach which had been constructed. A place for lovers, not a woman alone. What was she thinking of?
He began to follow her.
Faith was thinking of Gerald as she walked. Of how, that day, he had made her row him out to the yacht in their tiny dinghy to build up your muscles, dear, as he said: (the dinghy was named Titanic – as close to humour as Gerald would ever now achieve).
Faith had learned long before that doing whatever Gerald demanded was always easier than trying to reason with him, or (worse still) to argue. Her hand went again to her forehead to trace the scar where the boom had hit her, and where other bruises had once bloomed, then faded.
Minutes later she regretted her choice of route, as she glanced over her shoulder to see a man was following her. Madeira was such a safe place, but recently there had been talk of a foreign gang targeting the unwary. What would Gerald have done?
Shout. If in doubt, Gerald always shouted.
He grew closer and she spun round and yelled, ‘What the hell do you think you are doing?’ just as Manuel realised his error. ‘Lady! No. Mrs Southgate. Please. I am so sorry…’ Too late, he saw her handbag – the very cork handbag he had sold her at the Varadouro shop – slip from her startled shoulder and into the waves lapping the breakwater.
‘Blast!’ said Faith, torn between relief and anger. Then ‘No!’ but it was already too late. Manuel had kicked off his shoes and dived into the sea, fully clothed. ‘Oh God, no!’ Where was he? She counted the seconds, her own breath held.
‘Diabo!’ Even in December it was hardly cold, but it was still a shock. This had better be worth it, thought Manuel. And thank God cork floated. Swimming one-handed, the wretched bag in the other, he pulled for the concrete caltrops which formed the shoreline, watching Faith Southgate bend to pick up his shoes, then rush back towards him.
He held up the dripping bag for her but as Faith clambered down to take it, she hesitated. As she did so, Manuel’s spare hand brushed a spiny ouriço-do-mar and he yelped. She reached for the bag and his other hand and pulled him from the sea.
🌲 And so it is that half an hour later we find Manuel and Faith, Manuel wrapped in a blanket, drinking poncha at a table at the friendly little café of the Jardim Municipal. Once Ricardo and Nicolau have stopped laughing at his plight, kind Rubina finds Manuel an unlikely assortment of clothing left behind by café visitors over the years. Jéssica produces a sewing needle and Faith bends over Manuel’s hand to remove the sea urchin spines. She feels his hand shaking. Cold? No. Looking up into his face, she sees that he is laughing. She thinks then that he is perhaps a little older than she first thought, and he has kind eyes. She catches the moment and laughs with him. It has been funny, after all.
‘Faith… I may call you Faith now…?’
She nods, continuing to probe his thumb for spines. He does not have the heart to tell her that boiling water would melt away the pain, for he is enjoying her hand, warm and soft against his own.
‘For a moment there, when I was in the water, I thought you would not take the bag; would not help me?’ Faith lifts her needle and looks away from him.
‘I know. Forgive me. It just reminded me of… of the race. The boom. The rudder.’ The crack of wood on bone. He sees her touch her head oddly, as though it is not her own.
He takes her hand in his this time and holds it tight. Perhaps his future could be different with this woman, he thinks. Perhaps their paths could lead them back to England together – a new life for them both?
As for Faith, she may be smiling up at Manuel, but she is also far out at sea; the boom, the rudder. She scrambles up, blood streaming down her face, drenched by the same wave which has just washed Gerald overboard. And yes, there he is, floundering in his life jacket as another wave breaks over him. He comes up gasping, roaring at her, swearing at her, ordering her to help him, dammit.
It is then she feels her cold fingers tighten around the stiff wooden handle of the dinghy paddle.
And so let us leave them there, Faith Southgate and Manuel Rodrigues, strolling together through the glittering December splendours of Funchal: two people who may, just may, be able to save one another.
Feliz Natal ❤
Vee Walker is an author who loves Madeira. Last year’s short story can be read in her blog too. Although she has borrowed names from a few lovely people all characters and events are fictional. All places are real. Corrections to Portuguese and details welcome!
Vee’s prizewinning novel Major Tom’s War is available direct from http://www.kashihouse.com as an ereader and paperback edition.
Why not join Vee and her friend the art historian Eleanor Bird for Twelve Days – a feast of seasonal painting, poetry and prose at 3pm UK time on December 28th 2022 : book here 😎 https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/473483370507