A bright green squashy hat

I'm seeing the Samuel this afternoon at four.  The builders' budgets are ready, we will analyse them, and then decide which one I'll use – that is if I can afford either.  If I can't, then I can't have this flat.

I don't know how to pass the time until then.  Maybe I'll go for a long walk to some new part of town.  Maybe I will take another bus ride along the river to the Atlantic ocean.  Not far along the coast to the north of the estuary, there is a seventeenth century triangular granite fort on a small peninsular.  It is called Castelo do Queijo [Castle on the Cheese] because that is the shape of the rock it is built on. 

The fort is often hit by the waves, so you get to it across a ramp.  When I first went there, I was afraid of getting blown off in the strong wind.  So I can take a bus again, get out at the fort, walk about and have my hair blown off, and then take refuge in a café.    

I've got good news for you, Ann.'      

I was so elated I could not speak.  The budgets that the builders gave Samuel this morning were both for thirty-four thousand euros, and I had decided that if they were any more than forty thousand, I would pull out of buying the flat.  What's more – I couldn't believe my ears – the budgets included every last thing I wanted, from a new wooden window and shutters to hand-made wooden door handles. 

Samuel did not think I needed central heating.  ['Why, when you use it for such a short time?']  He forgot to tell both builders about it, when we were looking round the flat with them, until I realised I hadn't heard him say aquecimento central.  Not have central heating?  After my frigid nights in Lisbon and Coimbra?   Central heating was in the builders' budgets as well.

So which builder would I use?  I liked the way the boss of the second pair stood with his head cocked to one side like a blackbird while he listened to Samuel tell him what I wanted.  I liked his mate's green squashy hat.  Anna wore a green felt hat like this one when she helped paint the ceilings of my flat on Ligovsky Prospect.  Very well, let it be the second builder.

I also remembered how practical this blackbird was, how he counted the number of electrical points that would be needed, noticed that a new false ceiling in the dining room couldn't come right to the window, noticed that some of the door handles were modern brass levers instead of the original hexagonal wooden ones – we could make new ones to match, he said.  The day after meeting me at the flat, he was back there with his plumber and joiner, having brought the joiner to Porto from his home town sixty kilometres away because he was such a good and inexpensive workman.  

Samuel was taken aback when he learned that English people do not have identity cards.  What would I use instead when the lawyer from his estate agency took me to get my Numero Fiscal de Contribuinte?  This fiscal number is as essential to living here as an internal passport is to a Russian.  Without it, you can do nothing that needs an interface with public life. 

    'The department is not used to issuing a fiscal number without an ID card.  What other documents do you have for identity?'

    'Driving licence with photo.  European Union health card.' 

How glad I was that I got these when I was re-establishing myself in English life.
    'And what about an address?  What is your address here?'

    'I haven't really got one.  I am staying at a pensione.'
    'I suppose that will do.  In any case, you have to register your address again after you buy the flat.  All right, bring your passport and everything else you have.  It is very easy; it will only take five minutes to get this number.'

I put the visiting card that the pension had given me into my document folder, and hoped for the best. 

I thought of capricious, sullen, overbearing OVIR in Russia, its whimsical, short opening hours, its heart-rendingly long queues, its demand for another document when you have assembled your mountain right to the last stamped form, its demand that having filled in a document by hand, in duplicate, you write out the whole thing again, twice, because you made a slip – in short, the hell you go through to register your passport, or register where you live, or prove that you are who you are, that Edith Annette Palmer with the birth date 12/04/41 on this document with her photograph, is one and the same person as Edith Anett Palmer on that document with the same birth date and photograph.  'We should accept that they are the same person?  The very idea!' 

After Samuel and I finished talking about the budget, the lawyer came out of her office to meet me.  We shook hands, she apologised for her bad English, and we walked off towards her car. 

    'You can speak to me, I understand a little,' she said cautiously. 

This was after we had walked for five minutes in silence, when I was concentrating so hard on what had to be done next that I forgot she was there.

She must have been in her mid-forties, because her son was already twenty-five.  She had wavy brown hair and bright smiling eyes, and a charming way of underlining what she was saying by touching my arm with one finger. 

    'We've all got bikes.  In the weekend, my husband and I like to go out riding, and we often ride as far as the Castelo do Queijo...  My husband speaks English much better than I do!' 

She wrote down her name for me, so that I could remember it:  Felisbéla Nováis.  

    'Felisbéla – it means happy and beautiful!' I exclaimed. 

She nodded. 

    'And Nováis means new.  You are happy and beautiful and new – is that right?' 

She laughed and said she hoped so.

At the office where we went to get my number, she took a queueing ticket [wonderful] and we waited five minutes, just as Samuel promised.  The young man behind the desk started going through my passport and filling in his form.  Then he stopped, looked again at a line in the passport, and said something to Felisbéla.  They discussed something for a moment, and both turned to look at me.

Oh dear.

    'We noticed it will be your birthday in nine days!' she said.

With the document for my new number, we went on to the bank to open an account.  I handed my passport to the young woman in charge, she studied it for a while, and looked up.

    'I see it will be your birthday in nine days!'

 Felisbéla and I exchanged smiles. 

I filled in the application form and passed it to the young woman, Estella [meaning star, she told me].  She began to transfer it to her computer.   Then she stopped, picked up my passport, and turned to the names and addresses of two relatives at the back.  She paused at the the second one, my sister Eirene in New Zealand. 

    'You won't need those,' I said anxiously.  'They are for emergencies.'

    'It's only that your address is too long to fit on my computer.  I am looking for a shorter one.'

    'Let's see if I can make it shorter.'

I took back the form, crossed out some words, changed Court to Ct, Street to St and Hill to Hll, and gave it to her again.  Would I have to copy it all out once more?

She smiled, typed Ct  St  Hll, and smiled again when it fitted into her computer.

With my new fiscal number and bank account, I have started to grow a Portuguese layer on top of my Russian, English and New Zealand ones.



My system of bedroom meals is more than simple.  No appliances, no furniture, no drawers of implements.  Just me with a knife, a board and a bowl.


The bedroom system amuses me for now, but I am dying to have a proper kitchen and start cooking again.  Yesterday I saw the dining table that has to go into the sitting room with the panelled walls.  Oh, the wonderful glass top!  Oh, the gleaming wood!  Oh, the clean design with the straight legs!  Oh, the sliding section to make it bigger for my eleven guests! 

Going along the Rua dos Martires da Liberdade for the first time, it was late in the evening and I was on my way to the Flamenco concert.  I hesitated at the entrance to the dimly lit, narrow street, but went in anyway.  Here was an open café, here some children were playing with a ball, here were some teenagers chatting by a doorway, here someone walking his dog stepped off the pavement to let me pass.  I could scream if anything looked dangerous.  Then I thought:  I would be coming home, if this is where my pensione happened to be, like those children when they finish playing, and the man walking his dog.  Thinking about one thing and another, I walked without any harm all the way to the flamenco hall. 

Usually people say, about their part of the town, that the danger is somewhere else.  For Samuel, this district is fine; it's nice and quiet, but down in Ribiera, on the bank of the River Douro, well, you can go there in the daytime...   

I went there again in the daytime.  The children were still there with their ball, so were the teenagers chatting in the same doorway, the open cafés of course, and now I saw a lot of shops to help me pass the time in limbo.  I spent a long time kneeling on the floor in a kitchen goods shop, pulling out different sizes of heavy-bottomed saucepans and counting up prices.  A full set would cost only 68 euros.  It went onto my list.  

The assistant brought over someone to help translate.  He was a tall man, in a brown camel hair jacket, with grey hair and glasses, a courteous smile... like my Dutch friend Herman, I thought, scrambling to my feet. 

I supposed he was another customer.  No, he was the owner of the shop.  They laughed at my surprise.  'It's because he's tall; he doesn't look Portuguese.'  They checked through my list and said, no they don't do discounts, but they would deliver everything free to my flat if I bought the things there. 

Further along the street was a shop with unusual glass lamps.  I stepped in past a grey tabby cat which immediately rushed to the back of the shop.  The shades for the pendant lamps were box-shaped, and their glass with slightly whirling dusky colours was set in a black iron framework – like the mounting for stained glass windows.  The young woman looking after the shop with her mother told me that she makes them herself.  This is her atelier, and these lamps are a development of the Tiffany style.  I started to look through her catalogues, and...

And in no time we were talking...  About cats: did I want a cat, her friend needed to find a home for one of hers...  About what happens to your fingernails when you are working:  we compared our hands  -  my long unbroken nails since I stopped mending furniture  -  her chipped, red varnish, and two broken nails...  About working:  her mother, a retired primary school teacher, joined in here, in French. 

One glass lampshade on my list. 

Several times on my way to Samuel's office, I have stopped to gaze at a bed through the window of a furniture shop.  It had the beautiful wood and modern lines that I set my heart on in Russia.  Of course it would be too expensive for me.

Coming back there to have a look at a second hand shop which I had noticed through the bus window, I stopped at the bed shop, just to torment myself.  The person who unlocked the door and showed me round was the owner, and he also made the furniture.  Oh yes. 

    'That armchair for example, 1940s retro.  The first piece of furniture my father made as an upholsterer was exactly the same.  It is still selling - people like retro.  Of course my father doesn't work now, but he comes to the shop and talks to customers to keep them occupied when I am busy.

    My son has just qualified as an architectural... [I didn't exactly catch what my storyteller said here about his son.]   He looks at pieces of modern furniture that I like, copies the designs with his own variations, and I make them.  That's what you see here. 

    By the way, there is a thirty per cent discount on the bed that you like.  Did you notice that it is solid cherry wood?'

Rua de Cedofeita is a long street that leads across from my pensione to Boavista Avenue where the Casa da Musica is, and where I will be tonight for a jazz concert. Now part of it is closed to cars, and it's listed in the guide books under urban buzz.  When I went window shopping there, I was more interested in mattresses.

Here was a shop that sold only mattresses.  Two rooms were stacked high; I  could just manage to get inside the main room.  An old man sitting at the back looked up from his newspaper.  We began to calculate, and he frugally used the top of the newspaper to write down figures. 

I looked at his card - Business established 1921 - and looked back at the old man.  He was old, but he couldn't be that old.  We began a conversation with gestures and single words.

    'Business here?  Father's?'

Yes.  He gestured to the back of the shop and I understood that it was also the family house.  He was eighty-one years old, married fifty-four years. Children...  Grandchildren...

I will think about this old man when I go to sleep on one of his mattresses in my new flat.

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