José Saramago's childhood memoir, Small Memories, and his latest novel, The Elephant's Journey, are forthcoming from Harvill.

The leper on my chamber pot

I must return once again to Rua dos Cavaleiros. The back of our house there gave onto Rua da Guia, once known as Rua Suja – Grub Street – that joined another famous street, Rua do Capelão, which – accompanied inevitably by a guitar and several glasses of brandy – was always a fateful and unavoidable presence in fado songs and in any reminiscences about that first singer of fados, Maria Severa, and her fictional lover, the Marquis de Marialva...

We lived on the top floor (we almost always lived on the top floor because the rent was cheaper) in a room with use of kitchen, as the advertisements would inform us. There was no mention of a bathroom because such luxuries simply didn't exist, just a drain in one corner of the kitchen, open to the elements shall we say, which was intended for all manner of slops, both solid and liquid. At one point in my novel Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, I write about the women who used to carry to the aforesaid drain the receptacles used for all nocturnal and diurnal deposits and which were usually covered by an immaculate white cloth and called bacios – chamber pots – or, more rarely, penicos – pos – perhaps because the latter was considered too plebeian by the families who used them; bacio was more refined.

I associate that house in Rua dos Cavaleiros and its steep, narrow stairs with the nightmares that afflicted me while asleep and awake, for as soon as night fell, every corner would fill up with shadows from which monsters would reach out to me with great clawed hands, terrifying me with their diabolical grimaces. I remember sleeping on the floor in my parents' room (there was, as I said, only one) and calling out to them, shaking with fear, because underneath the bed or inside an overcoat hanging from the hook or within the distorted shape of a chest of drawers or a chair, indescribable beings were stirring and threatening to leap out at me and devour me. The main source of these terrors was, I believe, that famous fleapit cinema in the Mouraria district, where, with my friend Félix, I received spiritual nourishment from the thousand faces of Lon Chaney, from wicked, cynical people of the very worst kind, from ghostly visions, supernatural magic, accursed towers, dark underground passageways and from the whole paraphernalia, still in its infancy then, of cut-price collective and individual fear. In one such film, the leading man (that was what he was called in those days, although we denizens of the Fleapit referred to him unceremoniously as "the guy") was seated romantically on a balcony, his right arm resting on the balustrade, and, to judge by the expression on his face, he was thinking of his beloved. Then, after a moment of suspense, a sinisterly hooded leper began to climb towards him with agonizing slowness, finally placing one of his disease-ridden hands on the pure white hand of the actor, who, straight away, before our very eyes, contracted Hansen's disease. Never in the history of human illness can there have been such a rapid case of contagion.

The result of this horror was that, on that same night, when I was sleeping in the same bed as Félix (I don't know why, since it wasn't usual), I woke up in the dark and saw, in the middle of the room that also served as the other family's dining room, the leper from the film, exactly as he had appeared to us, all in black, with a pointed hood and a tall staff that came up to head height. I shook Félix awake and whispered in his ear: "Look over there." Félix looked and, explain it how you will, he saw exactly what I was seeing: a leper. Terrified, we pulled the blankets up over our heads and lay there for a long time, suffocating from fear and lack of air, until we dared to peer out over the edge of the sheet to find, with infinite relief, that the poor creature had vanished.

At the end of the film, "the guy" was cured by the faith that led him to bathe in the grotto at Lourdes, where he entered the water unclean and emerged pristine into the arms of the ingénue, or "the girl", as we equally disrespectfully referred to her. These terrors came to an end when we moved to Rua Fernão Lopes, where a new fear – of dogs this time – awaited me.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.



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