Maria the Happy

Pat (Don’t call me Aunt Pat, it makes me feel old) led me by the hand onto the long patio. The tiles still reflected the day’s heat, though the sun was now a red ball over the horizon. The table was spread with a locally made cloth, embroidered, as ever, with Portugal’s national symbol, the cockerel. It was weighed down by a crowd of jugs, plates, tumblers and bowls.

“Let me introduce you to everyone,” she said. “This is Rui and his wife, Gabriela.”

Rui, a man somewhere between forty and eighty, his face dark and creviced by a life in the sun, stood and shook my hand, grinning. Despite the summer heat, he wore a jersey under his jacket and had a pork pie hat pushed back on his head. Even standing, the hat barely reached my chin. At six feet three, I was a giant here. I tried to memorise his face, but he was cast in the same mould as every other Portuguese man I’d seen that summer. I’d not be able to pick him out of a line-up the following day.

Gabriela remained seated, nodding a greeting and grinning the ubiquitous gap-toothed grin I’d seen everywhere. She wore a black skirt, with a black sweater over a white blouse. There seemed to be a sartorial switch built into the women here. The young ones wore fashionable, colourful clothes, like young women the world over. And then, at some point, they switched their wardrobe over to black in a mirror image of teenagers back home. Surely the women over forty couldn’t all be Goths?

“And this is Maria. Her last name means ‘happy’. Isn’t that a wonderful name?”

Maria wore the widows’ uniform: black dress, black cardigan, black scarf covering her white hair. Portuguese widows wore their status seriously. True to her name, she grinned and nodded at me.

Pat rattled off some Portuguese, the only word of which I recognised was my own name.

“I’m just introducing you to them,” she said.

“Have you told them I’m your nephew, or your younger brother?” I asked.

She laughed. “Neither. I said you’re my older brother, you cheeky sod. None of them speak English, so you’re going to have to practice your Portuguese.”

“Pat, the only Portuguese I know is hello, goodbye, and how to ask for beer, wine and coffee. I’ve never found the need for anything else in any country I’ve visited.”

“Point taken. Sit down and help yourself to the wine. We’ll be picking my grapes for the next harvest in a couple of weeks, so I have a couple of barrels to get through.”

I sat opposite Rui and filled my glass from one of the jugs. The table creaked under the weight of salads, potato, pasta and bread.

“How many others are coming?” I asked.

Pat shrugged. “No-one especially. Oh, some more people might drop in. That’s the way it works here. No-one has anything, but whatever you do have you share, so if a neighbour is passing by, he’ll pull up a chair. It’s what you do. Only when someone refuses food three times do you let them go on. Sometimes it takes an hour just to cross the village. Why?”

I looked at the expanse of food.

“Because this looks like the feeding of the five thousand in reverse. And you haven’t even put the meat out yet. How are we going to get through all this?”

Pat laughed. “Well, I’m expecting you to tuck a lot away, but what doesn’t get eaten today we’ll eat tomorrow, and what doesn’t get eaten tomorrow the dogs will have. Don’t worry. They have a saying here. Good food can’t make you fat. Besides, I expect you worked up an appetite at the beach.”

“Oh, you should have been there, Pat. It must be fantastic for sunbathing and swimming when it’s calm, but this afternoon the Atlantic breakers were rolling in, smashing against the rocks and throwing themselves ten, fifteen feet in the air. Definitely not a watercolour sea, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I know exactly what you mean. So, you need to eat then. Excuse me.”

She disappeared onto the house, leaving me smiling awkwardly at the strangers. We grinned and nodded at each other in lieu of conversation. Pat reappeared with a plate of the largest prawns I’d ever seen.

“Tuck in,” she said, giving me the plate. I offered the plate to Maria, who shook her hands in refusal.

Gabriel and Rui took a couple of them, and we all set to, pulling them apart with our fingers. I took a roll, then offered the basket to the other diners. They refused, then Rui said something to me, placing his hands together by his cheek in the universal mime for sleep.

“Bread’s a very English thing,” said Pat. “The Portuguese don’t eat much of it, not with dinner. Rui says bread makes a man sleepy.”

“Funny,” I said. “My ex used to feed me bread every night.”

Pat translated and the locals cackled. Rui said something else, which caused the women to laugh even more.

“I’m not translating that,” said Pat. “Besides, I don’t know those sort of words in English.”

“But you know them in Portuguese?”

“I’m a very good student,” she laughed.

Prawns beheaded, belimbed and betailed, I wiped the back of my hand across my greasy mouth.

“Those were gorgeous, Pat. They’re caught locally, I guess?”

“Landed this morning. Most of the village don’t have a freezer.”

“Well, that was great. What’s for pudding?”

“Ha, you don’t know how we eat here. We’ve got a few courses yet before I get the chocolate mints out.”

She re-entered the cottage and came out with a steaming terracotta pot. She gave it a stir and ladled pungent fish stew into bowls.

“We like our seafood here,” she said. “Oh, everyone keeps chickens, and the pork is okay, but fish, that’s the real deal.”

She distributed the stew to her guests, everyone except Maria, who sat at the table smiling as people tucked in.

“So, Maria,” I said, knowing she couldn’t understand a word. “Not eating? You can’t be on a diet with your figure. Are you vegetarian?”

Rui echoed a word in Portuguese that sounded close enough to vegetarian to be recognisable and people laughed.

“Vegetarians starve in Portugal,” said Pat. “The closest to a vegetarian meal here would be wafer-thin ham. No, Maria doesn’t eat fish. I’ll tell you about it later.”

Several courses and even more glasses later, Pat and I sat on the patio, the milky way our roof. The guests had long gone and we had replaced the wine with brandy.

“You know, Pat, I don’t think I have ever seen anyone as happy as you out here.”

“What’s not to be happy about? The weather is fantastic, and even when it’s not it’s not as bad as in England, and the people, oh Bob, the people here. We’re one of the poorest countries in Western Europe, but the people in the villages here would give their last meal to a stranger. You know that fish stew? I have no idea where it came from. Someone heard I was throwing a party and just left it on my kitchen table, because we never lock our doors here. Could you imagine that back in your home?”

‘We’re poor’. ‘Your home’. Pat had gone native, and it suited her.

“Talking of which, you were going to tell me about Maria.”

“What? Oh, yes, Maria. She doesn’t eat seafood.”

“Okay. As after dinner conversation, that’s a wonderful story.”

She laughed and slapped my arm.

“Typical townie, in a rush. Out here we take our time, especially over gossip. So, Maria, she’s a widow, you got that, right?”

“Yes. Her clothing, I got that. She seems to be bearing up well, though.”

“Oh, it’s not recent. She was a young woman when it happened, maybe thirty years ago.”

“And she still wears mourning?”

“That’s what they do. It’s a wonderful life out here, but it’s hard. There are a lot of infant deaths, a lot of pain, and a lot of widows. When you lose a husband, you wear mourning unless you can remarry. Most wear it to their grave.

“So anyway, Maria’s lived in the village all her life. You’ve seen the place. Most people are subsistence farmers. They think I’m strange because I have a lawn and flowers. Everyone else grows maize, potatoes, tomatoes. Especially tomatoes, they go into every dish. Plus whatever else they can put their hand to. Maria’s husband, he was a fisherman. Not a commercial fisherman, but he used to cycle down to the coast with a rod and catch a few fish. You know the beach you went to this morning? He used to fish there. There are lots of crabs in the rocks, and some quite big fish come close in, because the water gets deep very quickly along there.

“Anyway, one morning he left home early, and never came back. He used to stand on the rocks to fish, and you saw what the sea can be like there. They found his bicycle. A wave must have come over the rocks and washed him away. If you fall over on those rocks, you’re going to get hurt. They never found the body.

“And that’s why Maria the Happy never eats fish. The sea took her husband away. Maybe she thinks the fish ate him and eating fish would be like eating him, or maybe she just hates the sea and everything in it. Either way, she’s not touched seafood since.”

“Damn, and I joked about it.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. It was a long time ago, and seriously, if anyone deserves the name, Maria the Happy does.” Pat stretched and settled back into the lawn chair. “Besides,” she said, sweeping her brandy glass to encompass the houses on the slope opposite, the oaks denuded of their cork to the north, and the magnificent night sky, “who could be unhappy in a place like this?”

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About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

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