For the tenants of the building on the street of the Fallen Leaves the landlord was no more than a name on their lease. Rui claimed he had once seen the owner. One summer afternoon he had been sitting on the step up to the front door when a large car - probably a Rolls Royce - had stopped outside, and the passenger window had wound down. An old man - who looked like a vulture - had peered out, sniffed the air, and then disappeared into the dark recesses of the car. In some tellings the man was the father of the current owner, in others a woman, but the audience remained indifferent; Rui had been a little boy at the time, full of mischief and imagination, and there was no one to vouch for his tale. The years passed, tenants came and went, and the building remained unchanged: a solid, detached block with a large, communal garden, overshadowed by a brick chimney belonging to the bakery next door.
The tenants had been accustomed to paying their rent on the first Monday of each month at the offices of the owner’s solicitor, a firm with impressive - or at least expensive - offices on a leafy street off Avenida. The name written in gold over the door was Ratton and Martinho. As a junior solicitor recently put in charge of a number of properties, and only a year out of law school, I was anxious to escape my desk no matter the task, so I made a point of calling on the firm’s clients whenever I had the chance.
The house on the street of the Fallen Leaves was in a quarter I knew well from my student days, and it was my habit to eat lunch at one or other of the local tascas before my visit. But summer brought a change to my ways, and also to my tastes, and I began to eat at a little restaurant around the corner from the office. Whenever there was a breeze, I sat outside, at rickety table, with my back to the hill, and my wine glass at an alarming tilt. So it came about that my visit to the house on the street of the Fallen Leaves fell in step with my other visits, and took place at the end of the day.
On this particular evening, I opened the heavy outer doors - the concierge had already disappeared - and stepped out of the shadows into the shallow light of a warm evening accompanied by the hope and expectations that swarm about every young man without knowing quite what they are, and with prospects that are not yet clear. This was the hour when people returned from work; the street was busy with pedestrians and the clanging of the trams could be heard up and down the main avenue. Each man carried a newspaper under his arm, or in his briefcase. As I passed through the park a sea of broad sheets touched and overlapped, rustling discretely whenever a page was turned.
The building was filled with the smells of cooking and the banging of chairs and the slapping of bottoms. Mother's wiped their brows and called for quiet and father's changed out of their suits and prayed for silence. The Nazaré rented the third floor flat on the left. Adelaide was a chemist, Tiago a draughtsman whose shirt pocket was always full of sharp pencils and drawing pens, and who wore blue trousers and blue shirts at the weekends. Since neither of them was home during the day this was the first time we had met.
I accepted their offer of a drink but first called on Rui to see about some changes he had proposed for the garden. By the time I returned Adelaide had already set an extra place for dinner, and invited me to join them. From that day I became a regular visitor; two or three nights a week I would stop by with a bottle of wine and after dinner the three of us would go out into the garden to talk and smoke. The youngest children were in bed at that hour but the older ones often stayed out till dark, pleading with their parents to let them go back out after dinner as the evenings grew longer.
Three years later Adelaide and Tiago had a son, Fernão, and I was asked to be the boy's godfather. I saw little of the family in the first year of the boy's life and though I felt the loss of my friends' company I shrugged it off, convincing myself that spending more time at the office was a reflection of a new found diligence not a retreat into drudgery.
It was Alfredo who recognised and then pulled me from my funk. He had not long returned from London; though the experience had been liberating, the city was too cold, and too grey. He formed a collective with some other young men and quickly abandoned it – too male, too earnest – and was indulging a little in the nightlife of the city. But whatever the hour he returned home he was to be found in his studio by seven the next morning; and if he came straight from the street, which he did at least once a week, so be it.
Alfredo found an agent, or rather an agent found him, and his early work - all done before he left for London - began to attract attention from the critics. But it was his Yellow Phase (such names were de rigeur at that time), that brought wider recognition, and soon enough his name found its way into print. It was at his second exhibition - the occasion on which I met Agustina Távora - that his new work was presented.
There was already a large crowd when I arrived, spilling out from the tiny gallery onto the narrow, poorly lit street. Most of the men, including the artists, were dressed in jackets and ties and wore the type of glasses favoured by left wing French intellectuals. It was a group exhibition for six up-and-coming painters. According to a small text by the door they were confronting the challenges presented by a fractured society whose fault lines had been exposed by colonial imperialism. Alfredo assured me that this was nonsense, had only been tacked on to win approval from the town hall, and that anyway the best artists like Paula Rego had moved to Paris or London.
Since Alfredo was in demand and the wine out of reach I wandered back up the street to a little bar where I drank a couple of imperials and waited for the crowd to thin out. A young woman emerged from the throng and approached me. She asked for a light and took a couple of long puffs before offering her thanks. She held out her hand and introduced herself. Agustina was a journalist at one of the national papers. Her request to cover the war had been turned down – too young, a woman. In response she was starting a war of words back home; her criticism of the regime was – it was claimed - seditious and had earned her a personal rebuke from the paper's owner. One more mis-step would see her fired or in prison, or both. She had little interest in painting.
I walked home from the gallery slowly, full of the high hopes and cheerful spirits that accompany a drunken young man with the world before him. I delighted in the swirls of the black calçada on the Avenida da Liberdade and felt that anyone who had seen them both could not fail to notice the resemblance between the perfect white squares of calçada and the perfect white teeth of Agustina Távora.
Many years passed before Alfredo and I spoke of the paintings he showed that night, and of the events which inspired them.