“I'm going out for a smoke.”
Alfredo wore the old dressing gown he'd borrowed over his shirt and trousers. Against the cold he said. He shuffled across the terrace, leant on the railing, looked out, looked down at his feet and then took out his tobacco and papers and rolled himself a cigarette. The rain had stopped and the mist had retreated into the woods.
On a good day the view over the plains reached Mafra to the north and to the Atlantic in the west. Alfredo took small puffs and rocked back and forth trying to stay warm. He picked a shred of tobacco off his tongue with finger and thumb and flicked it over the edge. When he'd finished smoking he pinched the soggy end and dropped it in his dressing gown pocket. He stayed there another minute rubbing his hands and staring into the impenetrable grey sky. He started talking as he opened the door.
“Did I tell you about the notepad?”
I was looking around for matches to light the stove.
“I think I saw them under that magazine.” I followed the line of his finger to the table. No. On top of the fridge, perhaps?
“Ah.” Alfredo produced the matches from the dressing gown.
“Door.” Alfredo closed the door.
“I'd come in from the garden just as I did now and sat down at the kitchen table to think about what I was going to have for lunch. My notepad was open and on it was written the single word, 'grike'.”
The coming alive of the flame at the end of the struck match gave me a tiny jolt of pleasure. I lit the stove under the coffee.
“Do you know what a grike is?”
I shook my head.
“I looked it up; it means a fissure or crack, specifically in limestone.”
“It's a good word.”
“Yes, it is a very good word. But I didn't write it.”
When the coffee stopped spluttering I poured us both a cup and sat down. Alfredo worked on the crossword while I rifled in vain through the rest of the paper in search of something that might take my interest. I put it on the table.
“Who d'you think wrote it?” I asked.
“He can barely read.”
“What about the priest?”
“I asked him. He doesn't remember but he's certain he took his car to be repaired in Sesimbra that day so it's unlikely.” I wondered if Alfredo too might not be getting forgetful.
“Are you certain that—”
“I was just wondering—”
“The handwriting is completely different. It's spiky and all bunched up.”
“A message of some sort?”
“It doesn't make any sense to me.”
“What if whoever wrote it was disturbed before they could finish what they had to say.”
“An unusual message that starts with the word grike.”
“Maybe they wanted to remember the word.”
Alfredo thought about this.
“Someone wandered in, remembered this word that they didn't want to forget, wrote it down and then disappeared. It's possible.” It sounded implausible to me but it was the kind of thing Alfredo himself might do.
Alfredo put down the crossword.
“No, not quite.”
“So-so.” He pushed the folded paper towards me. “Let me know how you get on.”
I was rewiring a plug with difficulty because I'd left my glasses upstairs. Adolfo was watching me.
“Everything alright with you?”
“You can ask me about the business.”
“You never liked Sebastian very much.”
Alfredo didn't reply.
“You advised me not to get involved with him.”
Alfredo neither nodded nor shook his head but moved it around in a manner somewhere between the two.
“What about the communist from Marvila?”
“He's got me over a barrel too.”
Alfredo tried to hide his smile. He had a very literal cast of mind. I looked at the crossword while he got over his giggling fit. When he'd done the conversation took a turn.
“There is something else.” Though I hadn't asked. Alfredo took out his tobacco. He pushed it around on the table.
“I didn't want to tell you until I was sure. I'm going to start painting again.”
“I've had a few ideas.”
“That's promising.” Alfredo straightened a few items on the table.
“I haven't done anything yet. I have to do a bit of thinking first. I might be going in a new direction.”
“Well, why not. It's a good idea.” I put down the plug. Adolfo picked it up and while he worked on it, I got up to make another pot of coffee.
“You want another?”
“Ah, yes. It is a day for tea and toast. Then I'd best be off. Catullus will be wondering where I am.”
Adolfo was sitting in his car. He handed me a small package.
“I'm serious this time.”
“The green fuse is lit.”
He started the car and turned it around. As he drove through the gate he called out, “Open it when you want. I'll call.”
After Alfredo had gone I wandered into the living room and sat in my usual armchair. The fire in the grate had burned down. A tonsure of grey embers lay in a circle of half burned logs above a drift of white ash. A low wind whistled in the chimney. Next to the chair where Adolfo had sat was an almost empty bottle of brandy and two glasses. I rested my feet on the edge of the hearth and thought about what my brother had said about taking up painting again. After his wife died he'd carried on because it was a habit he didn't want to break. One spring morning six months later he didn't go to the shed in the garden where he worked; instead he walked to the village for a coffee and smoked a cigarette while he talked to the owner. For the past six years that had been his routine.
I lifted my eyes and looked into the white face of our supercilious ancestor, the minister, whose oily magnificence hung in a gilt frame above the credenza – and found no comfort or assistance there. At one time I had modelled myself on our patriarch accentuating those faint traces of resemblance that existed between us: the thin lips pressed in a sardonic smile; the hooded shining eyes; and the thick black hair that curled and spat like the breaking waves.
Now my hair was white and as soft as the tired waters that dribbled over the sand. I cleaned out the grate, laid a fresh fire, and cleared the remains of the evening meal from the table before heading upstairs to dress.
Around ten in the evening the house phone rang. It was Adolfo.
“I know who wrote the word. Can you guess?”
I'd been thinking about Adolfo's problem and I had an answer.
“The little woman who comes to clean the church. She got confused by the pond and took the path to your house by mistake.”
“In the floral dress with pockets at the front.”
“Oh, no, not her. Why would she write ‘grike’ on a notepad?”
“Who can say what she might write; she never speaks.”
But I was sure it wasn't her. I knew who it was. Oleta.
The death of our cousin the previous summer had left Adolfo and I as the only people who had known our sister and to my mind the only people who truly believed that she had existed at all. For when you hear of an aunt or a great aunt who died at an age younger than you are now and whose fate was to be sucked under the waves and never be seen again it requires great faith in the narrator to accept that such a thing could ever have happened. To the world Oleta was a fantastical being, a mermaid perhaps. But for Adolfo and I she had remained for almost seventy years the question at the heart of our lives.