N’Djokito

It was the penultimate day of the working week, after the English fashion. Dominguinho was glancing through the paper first thing in the morning, when he froze on the page of death notices, realizing he was staring at the picture of his great friend N’Djokito who, to his double stupefaction, had been dead for a month, without him being aware of it. A small legend announced that on the next day, flowers would be laid at his burial place, and a service would be held to mark the passage of the 30th day, in one of the town’s churches.

Now a friend is a friend, and when he reaches the stature of N’Djokito, let his workmates and friends be patient and go without him to the Escondidinho, their usual watering hole where, after a hard day’s work in the factory, they would savour their beer, gallons of it, even with the place packed with thirsty and noisy people. They could always be certain of getting a drink, as they had made friends with the waiter through diligent and disinterested (?) tipping.

He would not go to lay flowers on the grave of his unfortunate friend as that would have been during the morning, and at a time when he should already have his sleeves rolled up; moreover, on a Friday he was in no mind to give the bosses an excuse for encroaching on his already miserable salary, nor was he ready to hand them on a plate the knife and fork to use and abuse his miserable condition as an unskilled worker and give him the sack at the first blunder that he might unwittingly commit.

The Escondidinho was the last haven which they could always confidently turn to, back from their incursions, not always successful, through the eating-houses of the town where, in the best of hypotheses, they could get two or three glasses of beer to slake the their parched throats, after throwing away gallons of money on compulsorily indigestible meals, patiently requested before they were allowed to drink, in the now chronic anarchy that plagued the hotel industry. There, before sneaking back into the night of the suburb of Chamanculo, they glumly settled their accounts with the damned thirst that had been parching their throats all day.

Sometimes the group ventured out to buy a barrel of thirty litres of beer that, with great difficulty owing to the reduced number of drinkers, wavering between four and five (whatever their mastery at tilting their glasses) would be drained dry just about before first cock-crow. Then, like ships adrift on a choppy sea, they would scatter away with garish farewells, drunkards reeling off through the dark alleyways of the suburb.

Recovering from the shock of the paper’s announcement, Dominguinho readied himself to attend the Mass in tribute to his late friend N’Djokito who, besides, had also been his companion in the great revelry, as he kept in his memory indelible remembrances of the monumental binges that they had been on together and of a few scabrous scenes in which they had taken part, while his friend was still alive. He was sure that N’Djokito, from over there in his grave, where memories from this world are supposedly allowed, was also remembering it all and would feel very satisfied, knowing that Dominguinho attended the Mass on the 30th day after his death, to pray for his soul.

But abstaining from his usual pint would constitute an extreme sacrifice for Dominguinho, as his innards could no longer resist the craving to ferment in their daily malt. When he came back from the church, even straining the combined lightness of his legs, the Escondidinho would be closed and he would go to sleep with his innards afire. What would come of his viscera, used to relaxing in malt submersion! And what would he do now that the habit had sunken into him… Patience! he told himself, a friend is a friend and who knows, if by some act of grace and favour of the deceased, taking in the significance of my sacrifice, it might be that on this very day the beer will be flowing in rivers and even with the place crammed as ever with drinkers, they would never get to pump it dry! That was a spark of hope to comfort him!

Without paying attention to time, which slowly trotted away like a jaded horse, Dominguinho was working, deep in a world of contemplation about this strange day, about the obituary that made him face the extemporaneity of presenting his most heartfelt condolences to the grieving family, now with thirty days already gone since his friend had crossed from this world to a better one, unbeknownst to him. The factory bell chimed at half past eleven, to mark the end of the first period of work. Fires, improvised and scattered across the wide inner pavement of the factory, warmed up the sparse meals after which would come a restorative nap. That day, however, Dominguinho’s rest was shaken by several alarms; he tried in vain to force slumber with his eyes fixed on the paper, precisely on N’Djokito’s portrait. He could hardly believe it all, and even went so far as to attribute it to illusory effects of his sight, “but then, would this visual illusion only choose, precisely, poor old man N’Djokito?” – did he reflect to himself. No. It was true. His friend was already in that other realm where you eat your salad from the root. How could he avoid the facts? In the succession of his fantasies, instead of N’Djokito’s face (which delighted him), sometimes the ugly mug of that unprepossessing bloke appeared. This man, never having seen him before, had one day gone into the Escondidinho and, without any call or cause, put his hands on his glass of beer, emptied its contents, and, moreover, when he tried to make him realize his mistake, the man started to argue, initiating a squabble that ruined the atmosphere, and they would have hit each other, if N’Guito, very much against brawls and such disorders, hadn’t quickly put an end to the tumult before they came to blows. At other times, the portrait clouded itself and fled from his sight, but any slight noise was enough for him to come back to his senses and face the facts. That face, flat there in the paper, was no more, no less, than the unmistakable N’Djokito! How could he not recognize him, unless, perhaps, someone had tried to play a joke, had sent that picture to the paper where he displayed that crafty smile of his with his upper lip showing between the fine threads of his fat and ill-trimmed moustache.

He tried to invite some of the workmates with whom he always congregated in the Escondidinho, men who had also gone in line in times past, with N’Djokito, but none accepted the invitation. After many, many reserves, they opted at the end for the path of sincerity, and one of them even told him, without more ado, in truly sepulchral tones: “Listen mate, we understand your grief, indeed we share it, but N’Djokito is dead now, buried and all-to remember him is to recall sorrows, now resting deep in us; and moreover, there is no mass, nor half-mass that will make him come alive again. You go if you want to, but we, I mean I, shall make a bee-line to the Escondidinho, just because tomorrow there will be buckets of beer and that’s the only stuff that you can drown your miseries in!”

At half past one, Dominguinho went back to his workbench. His mental dissertations hardly differed from what occupied his mind during the morning, summoned by the obituary page. With such monotony, the hours of the afternoon dripped away until the clang of the bell signalling the end of work. The following day ran in a like monotony tinged with some bitterness because of the contacts between Dominguinho and his closest workmates. Whatever they asked him he answered to in a monosyllabic form, with slight variations between “yes” and “no”. Through his own initiative he said nothing. When five o’clock sounded, he dressed up and went away at a brisk pace as if something was after him. He did not wait for the machimbombo, the bus, because it was peak-time and at that hour it usually came packed and hardly stopped to take more passengers. He only calmed down when he found himself in the churchyard.

Morbid notes from a psalm fleeted, lost, in the air. The service had already begun when he introduced himself to the temple, leaving, in a corner of the entrance, the bag that contained the pans of his lunch. The church was full, which called upon his imagination to evaluate the crowd that had accompanied the procession on the day of the funeral of his late lamented friend and the tears — not scarce, he supposed — that had poured from the multitude when the coffin, slowly and at the sound of moving biblical psalms, was lowered into the earth. N’Djokito had bequeathed many regrets to all those who had known him and consorted with him before the treachery of destiny.

Dominguinho settled himself at the edge of one of the long genuflectory benches, he made the sign of the Cross and, like the others, directed his attention to the peroration of the reverend, who was lecturing from the pulpit on a theme dedicated to the dead. He followed the service with an earnest devotion that, for exaggerated concentration, did not prevent the soothing rhetoric of the priest from lulling him into sleep, waking up bewildered only as the man next to him nudged him, when it was time for the collection.

Carrying a platter, a middle-aged man walked through the benches on the side where Dominguinho sat, proceeding with the collection of the alms of the Faithful. There was such a disparity between the quantities deposited on the metallic plate: some offered money in notes, some in coins. The man with the salver went on, bench after bench, performing his most religious duty, and the offered sum fattened in the salver, now too small for such a big contribution.

When the receptacle, polychrome with cash, came to Dominguinho, he, without more ado, foraged anxiously in the back pocket of his pants, from where, from a scratched wallet, he charmed out a note of five hundred meticais (1) and put it on the plate, above the others, pronouncing something unconnected with the solemn moment, that bewildered the almoner. The man, however, not finding rhyme or reason in what he had just heard, went on with the collection, without permitting himself to go on about the “shameless face” who was not able to distinguish between a respectable church and a den of drunkards.

See, he plays deaf, but that does not cut mustard with me, said Dominguinho, in a low voice, to the man on his side.

“What,” the perplexed recipient asked.

“That guy is pretending to be deaf,” Dominguinho explained, pointing to the verger who was progressing through the crowd, with his eyes set on the gifts for the house of God.

“But… I don’t understand.”

“I told that bloke over there to bring me the soup first and the bastard, without saying a single word, turns a deaf ear on me!”

“The soup,” Dominguinho’s neighbour exclaimed, dumbfounded, “bring you the soup first?”

“Sure, you holy man of God, the soup! And the damn waiter didn’t even pay attention! How many glasses do we get, by the way?”

Not understanding what was being said, in this manifest and shameless profanation of the divine mysteries, Dominguinho’s neighbour opted for silence, for he probably was sitting besides some mentally unbalanced man — some lunatic!

The service went on. Dominguinho did not pay any more attention to it. His eyes were seeking! His eyes were seeking, as the floodlights of a prison sweeping the shadows in search of a runaway! They were looking for the man with the salver, the waiter who never more appeared, neither with the ordered soup, nor with the accompanying beer. “What sort of robbery is that? As it happens this is one of those guys who masquerade as waiters to take advantage of the crowd and confusion, palm everybody’s good money and take a powder, and we, good people of God, stand here waiting, as rigged-up boobies waiting for the Second Coming (2) on a misty morning and never any pint to come, nor any half-pint,” he said confidently to his buttons.

As strange as it could seem, Dominguinho was only bodily present. He saw nothing, heard nothing of what happened around him. People praying, psalms torn from the depth of their lachrymose hearts, the priest rummaging the divine apartments with his peculiar gait, the organ that grated under the pressure of the harsh fingers of a distinguished performer. He perceived nothing of the aspect that gave to the cult the baneful characteristics appropriate to that moment of grief.

When the exodus from the church began at the end of the service, Dominguinho, in an attitude of despairing incredulity, nudged his neighbour who was already retiring and asked:

“So, are these people going now? And what about the money?”

“The money? What money?”

“What money? Then you think that the salver of that quack was full of what? That was our lunch money! Or do you think it was a freebie, as if we had been in some Church? If there’s no beer then they should give back the hard-earned dough, mate…”

“But…what is going on with you?”

“What’s going on is that I gave five C’s to that scoundrel of a waiter, as I can’t find another name for him, and you can see the result by yourself: he never brings soup or beer!”

“Now where do you think you are? Reflect, mister, come back to yourself… Oh my God! This is howling to heaven!”

“Listen, listen, now it’s my turn to ask you: – Now where do you think you are? Reflect, mister, come back to yourself… Oh my God! This is howling to heaven! What heaven? What what? You mad or something? Did some craziness come into your fat head? You think perhaps we are in some church and I spent five good C’s for the housing expenses of God the Omnipotent Father? That what you think? Dominguinho was talking with heavily accented irony.”

“Hey! Isn’t this a church we are in,” said the man, crossing himself, pulling his interlocutor out of a morbid and acute lethargy that had troubled his mind.

Translated by J. Pailler

NOTES
1) At today’s exchange rate: 2.5 US cents
2) The author’s allusion is really to the Portuguese king, D. Sebastian, killed in 1578 at the battle of Alcazarquivir in Morocco, whose survival and second coming is one of the fundamental legends of Portuguese lore.