Life and Dream
He could have been a traveling salesman, a train conductor, or a sailor. However, he was none of those things because we do not make ourselves; we are shaped by circumstances. His father, after much asking around, had finally found him a place in a major bank where, at the age of just thirteen, he was given a gray uniform and a job with a future. “Boy, where’s that check?” “Boy, take this bill of exchange to Senhor Silva,” “Come here, boy,” “Boy!” He worked hard and zealously, already very serious and keen to do his duty, as yet unaware that all his energy and zeal were drawing him into a vast mechanism from which he would never be able to free himself. At home in the evenings, he devoured adventure stories by Emilio Salgari that a wealthier colleague lent him. At other times, he’d leaf through an old atlas—the countries gnawed at and regurgitated by various wars—that his father had bought years ago from a secondhand bookshop. But what could those frontiers possibly mean to Adérito? He contented himself with the vast blue expanses of ocean and with cities bearing exotic names, which, with almost voluptuous pleasure, he’d say out loud (mangling them horribly) just to hear those names spoken.
The years passed almost without him realizing, years full of long, tedious, identical days. He began working at the counter; he was given his own desk complete with briefcase and finger sponge (this was, after all, a job with a future); he met women—a few—and he married. And now he was the one to shout, “Boy! Boy!” Whenever he did, though, he felt a tightening of the throat, a feeling of embarrassment that even he could not explain, a pang of guilt too—yes, mainly guilt toward those serious, energetic, eager young lads.
He didn’t often think about things (why go delving into them?), but he did sometimes catch himself thinking that perhaps this wasn’t what he had been born to do and that there might still be time to escape. But escape from what? And where to? He liked his work. Or did he? The truth is, he didn’t know anything else. Numbers, numbers, days, months, years of numbers, years that to him were abstract but that for many other people were clearly very real. It was quite possible that he hadn’t been born to do this job. But then who is born to do anything? he thought by way of consolation. He was a placid fellow, accustomed to putting up with life’s vexations. A man who knew no strong pleasures and found no sorrows too unbearable. A methodical man with impossible dreams and no ambitions.
On Sundays, he donned his best suit—the blue one—and his birthday tie and set off to watch football. His wife would also get dressed up and go visit her mother. Sometimes, they left at the same time and only said goodbye at the end of the street, exchanging kisses without even realizing they were. Spending Sunday afternoons apart was an old habit that both had always found perfectly natural. As natural and immutable as going to the local cinema on a Saturday night to watch some film or other, whatever happened to be on, and attending eleven o’clock mass on Sunday at São Domingos.
Sometimes, over supper, his wife asked: “Bad game?”
Adérito replied with a “so-so” or a “pretty average.” And he’d blush slightly because he was a man who disliked lies. The reason he lied was simply that he felt that his wife would find it easier to understand the lies he told than the truths he could have told. He couldn’t imagine—and he had often thought about it—what her reaction would be if he did actually tell her where, for years and years, he had been spending his Sunday afternoons. Every single one. Come rain or shine. She might not believe him; women always find it hard to believe simple, transparent things. No, she’d never believe that he went down to the harbor to watch the boats leaving or to the airport to see the planes taking off. One day, he had mentioned this hobby of his to Costa, his colleague at the bank, and Costa had smiled a slightly superior smile. If Costa couldn’t understand it, how could a poor, insignificant creature like his wife . . . Costa had even asked: “But what possible interest can you have in watching those people heading off on a plane or a ship?”
And that was the strange thing. Adérito didn’t go to the airport or to the harbor to watch the people who were leaving. Nor did he go there to see the boats or the planes. It was more complex than that. Even he didn’t know—for he was a simple man—what he was hoping to get out of those moments, which were the happiest, richest, most complete of his lifeless existence. It was everything and nothing at the same time. The strong, slightly putrid smell of the dark, mysterious water so close by; the salt air on his skin; the excited voices; the hustle and bustle; the shouts; the occasional tears; those calm, collected, adventurous words filling the air: Destination Karachi . . . or Destination Brazil . . . or New York . . . Then, and this was the best bit: the great bird roaring down the runway before slicing through empty space or the enormous ship moving quietly as time itself over the light waves of that river-cum-ocean.
Sometimes, he would stay watching until the ship had vanished from sight. He experienced a kind of anguish, as if some much-loved person had left forever. Except that isn’t quite what it was. What he felt was a terrible grief for the person—namely, himself—who had to stay behind.
He would then walk along the quayside, and there were always men—whether very dirty or just burned by the sun, he couldn’t tell—unloading or loading bundles onto the cargo ships that had arrived or were about to leave. Men with the faces of adventurers. Men. Sometimes, he stopped to look at other boats: small, ancient-looking boats, slowly rotting away in the water, always in motion and always still, tethered to iron posts by thick ropes. Tethered there to prevent them going to sea. Like him.
He always returned home in a melancholy mood. He saw the table laid for supper, the scarlet lampshade, the statuette of the boy eating cherries (the cherries would sway when he came in); he saw his own wife—who had grown plump and soft with age—and he saw all this with different eyes, with the new eyes of someone come from far away and who suddenly, unexpectedly, falls back into ordinary everyday life, into his old life, into the life that was there waiting for him: his life.
As she was serving the soup, his wife asked: “Bad game?”
And he blushed and said: “So-so. How’s your mother?”
Sometimes, at night, it rained. The drops beat hard against the window panes; the wind swept over the entire street. She put down her knitting and wrapped her shawl more tightly around her because she always felt the cold.
“It’s good to be at home,” she said. “But do you know where I’d be happiest? In Africa . . .”
He’d smile faintly, go over to the bookshelf, open Robinson Crusoe or something by Jules Verne, books he had read so often that he knew certain passages by heart.
The following morning, he’d return to the bank to do more addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. “Boy!” “Come here, boy!” But the guilty expression on his face meant that the boys didn’t respect him. He was always the last person they rushed to help.
One day, one of the directors called him in and had him sit on one of those green leather armchairs that, up until then, he had seen but never sat in. The director was a fat man, very perfumed and smiling, with diamond rings on his fingers. He looked intently at Adérito as if trying to read his thoughts.
“Do you know why I asked you to see me?”
Adérito did not. Nor did he have any thoughts worth reading. He was perched on the edge of the chair, his hands on his knees, which he kept respectfully pressed together.
The director started talking. The board recognized how valuable he was to them, his dedication to the firm, his love of his work. As he must have heard, the bank was going to open a branch in Lourenço Marques in Mozambique. And the board had immediately thought of him, Adérito, as the right person to manage and run the branch. This, of course, meant an increase in salary. He would go so far as to call it a considerable increase. . . . Considerable. . . . In short, it was a highly advantageous, not to say, prestigious post. But he should go away and think about it, then tell him yes or no.
Adérito did not think, or rather, he thought about it very little. Nor did he mention it to his wife, because she was incapable of understanding the decision he had made even as the director was setting out his proposal. She, poor thing, had always dreamed of being a lady. And a lady like her might have ambitions. With lots of hats and lots of dresses and lots of cakes to offer visitors. The wife of a bank manager in a colonial city . . . She would, of course, never forgive him for turning down the offer. He spoke to the director about his wife’s health, about his own very delicate liver. All lies, needless to say. Why, though, why? He himself didn’t know. Then again, perhaps he did. Perhaps it was because there were people who could dream and live at the same time, the swarthy men on the quayside, the actors and actresses he saw on Saturday nights at the local cinema, and he had grown accustomed to dreaming and living. Perhaps that’s why. Now it was late, too late. He would no longer know how to actually live a dream. He felt old, horribly old, and tired, yes, terribly tired. Terribly sad too.
It was his colleague Costa who later set off on a lovely steamship. Adérito stood watching on the quayside, his eyes wide open, and he felt a dreadful, overwhelming sense of anguish. He stood there until the ship had disappeared completely into the thick mist covering the Tejo that morning. Then he went to the airport to watch the planes leave.