The Exile

The plaster peeling off the walls in the Alfama looked like a weeping woman’s running mascara. Trams shunted past like the sound of endless rows of slot machines. From yawning windows old women peered outside like gargoyles, their skin as mat and tired as the faded azulejos.

Joaquim drank his fourth shot of ginjinha and bit his lip. The Alfama he walked through that morning, on one of his rare days off, was a ghost. Or was he the ghost? The plaster, the trams and old gargoyle women; they are all that remain of the Alfama of his childhood. The rest is as unrecognisable as the music of distant Africa.

“I hate what they’ve done to my neighbourhood. It’s bad enough I’ve been forced into the goddamn suburbs, but they had to tear out my childhood home like a rotten tooth.”

“Why did you move Joaquim?” The barman, a young man with a trimmed moustache, asked him. They had known each other a few weeks.

“Why’d you think? My landlord raised my rent, the son-of-a-bitch. My mother died in that place. I’d lived there since I was fucking born. And now, bastard’s renting the place out for foreigners.”

“Airbnb?”

“Something like that.”

The sun was fading outside the bar. Its pinkish touch caressed the jaded Alfama. Joaquim gave his back to it. But still the dying light crawled over his skin.

When Joaquim had entered the bar it was full of old locals.

Now that the sun was setting, the locals had gone and it was filling with well-groomed foreigners ordering maned cocktails.

Joaquim was left alone in his own home.

Was it the bar or the whole of goddamn Lisbon, he thought?

“I wish Salazar was still in power.”

The barman laughed nervously. “You can’t mean that Joaquim.”

“Of course I mean it. How do you know what I mean or don’t mean?”

“The man was a dictator. You can’t miss him.”

“I can and I do. A man in my position never has freedom. It was God that took my freedom, not Salazar. But at least, when Salazar was in power I had a home, where I belong. Now I’m exiled out of my own city. An exile of my history.”

“You have a good home, don’t you?”

“What good is a home without a past. I wish,” he downed another shot of ginjinha. A tram rattled by outside and sounded like winter. “I wish ghosts were real. I wish Salazar’s foul-smelling spirit would come back and take over.”

Joaquim started talking more loudly than he knew. The punters in the bar who spoke Portuguese turned to look at him.

“I’m sorry Joaquim but I can’t have you talking like that here, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Are you fucking serious?”

“Praising Salazar isn’t appropriate here. We’re not like that.”

“Fuck appropriate. Salaza, Salazar, Salazar!” He shouted, dancing around the customers.

He could see the shock and horror on their faces. Their faces reminded him of his mother whenever she’d heard the news that a neighbour had ‘disappeared’ back in the Salazar days.

Joaquim left the bar. The bar that once belonged to his great uncle. He was exiled from there too. Exiled by the young, liberal Salazar behind the bar.

Now, facing the sunset dead in the eye, Joaquim felt his drunkenness bubbling right behind his eyes. It felt like a volcano. It wanted to erupt. It was an old familiar feeling. The last left to him. He wanted to keep it going. He walked to another bar and for the rest of the night reveled in his last shred of still-living nostalgia: drunkenness. He had a past there. And not Salazar nor the fascist barman afraid of upset of people could kick him out of that fortress.

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