Ghosts

Antonio Tabucchi teaches Portuguese language and literature at the University of Siena. Pereira Maintains is published by Canongate in November.

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Off on one last silent murder

Pereira maintains that a wild idea had struck him, but he thought that maybe he could bring it off. He put on his jacket and left the building. Opposite the cathedral was a late-night café with a public telephone. Pereira entered and gave the place a quick glance. There were a few night-birds playing cards with the proprietor. The waiter was a sleepy youth lounging behind the counter. Pereira ordered a lemonade, then made his way to the telephone and dialled the number of the thalassotherapeutic clinic in Parede. He asked to speak to Dr Cardoso.

Dr Cardoso has already retired to his room, who is calling please? said the voice of the switchboard operator.

This is Dr Pereira, said Pereira, the matter is urgent.

I'll go and call him, if you don't mind waiting, said the voice, it will take him a minute or two to get down.

Pereira waited patiently until Dr Cardoso came on the line. Good evening Dr Cardoso, there's something important I have to tell you, but I can't do so just now.

What is it, Dr Pereira, asked Dr Cardoso, don't you feel well?

As a matter of fact I don't, replied Pereira, but that's not the point, the fact is that a very serious problem has arisen at home, I'm not sure if my private phone is under surveillance, but that doesn't matter just now, I can't say more for the moment but I need your help, Dr Cardoso.

Tell me how I can help, said Dr Cardoso.

Well, Dr Cardoso, said Pereira, tomorrow at midday I'm going to ring you and I ask you this favour, to pretend to be a bigwig in the censorship and say that my article has been given the go-ahead, that's all.

I don't see what you're driving at, said Dr Cardoso.

Listen Dr Cardoso, said Pereira, I'm calling you from a café and I can't go into details, at home I have a problem such as you can't even imagine, but you'll learn about it in the evening edition of the Lisboa, it'll be down there in black and white, but you've got to do me this big favour, you must state that my article has your consent, you understand? I want you to say that the Portuguese police are not afraid of scandals, that it's a clean police force and has no fear of scandals.

I get your message, said Dr Cardoso, I'll be waiting for your call at midday.

The moment he got home Pereira went into the bedroom and removed the towel from Monteiro Rossi's face. He covered him with a sheet. Then he went back next door and sat down at his typewriter. He wrote a title, "Journalist Assassinated", then double-spaced and started to type:

"His name was Francesco Monteiro Rossi, his father was Italian. He contributed articles and obituaries to this newspaper. He wrote texts on many great writers of our time, including Mayakovsky, Marinetti, D'Annunzio, Lorca. His articles have not yet been published, but perhaps one day they will be. He was a spirited young man who loved life, and instead it fell to his lot to write about death. A task he never shirked. But last night death sought him out.

"While he was dining with the editor of the culture page of the Lisboa, Dr Pereira, the writer of this article, three armed men forced their way into the flat. They stated that they were Political Police, but produced no documents to support their claim. It is almost unthinkable that they were official police officers, because they wore civilian clothes, and moreover it is to be hoped that the police in this country do not employ such methods. My conviction is that they were gangsters acting with the complicity of persons in high places, and the authorities would do well to enquire into this ugly business.

"Their leader was a skinny little person with a moustache and a small goatee. The other two addressed him as Captain, and he several times called them by name. These names, unless fictitious, are Fonseca and Lima. They are both tall, powerful men of swarthy complexion and apparently low intelligence. While the skinny man kept the writer of this article covered with a pistol, Fonseca and Lima dragged Monteiro Rossi into the bedroom to carry out what they called an interrogation. The present writer heard blows and smothered cries. Then the two men returned and said their work was done.

"The three of them hurriedly left the present writer's home, threatening him with death if he disclosed the occurrence. The present writer hastened to the bedroom but could do no more than ascertain the decease of young Monteiro Rossi. He had been beaten to pulp, and the blows, inflicted with a cosh or the butt of a pistol, had smashed his skull. His corpse is to be found on the second floor of number twenty-two, Rua da Saudade, the residence of the present writer.

"Monteiro Rossi was an orphan and had no relatives. He was in love with a beautiful sweet girl whose name is unknown to us. We only know that she had copper-coloured hair and loved literature. To this girl, should she read this, we offer our sincerest condolences and deepest affection. We urge the competent authorities to maintain careful vigilance over these episodes of violence which under their wing, and perhaps with the direct complicity of certain persons in high places, are today being perpetrated here in Portugal."

Pereira double-spaced again and then, beneath and to the right, he typed his name: PEREIRA. He signed it simply Pereira because that was the way everyone knew him, by his surname, that was how he had signed all his crime reports for so many years and a day.

He raised his eyes to the window and saw that dawn was breaking over the fronds of the palm trees of the barracks across the way. He heard a bugle call. Pereira sank back into an armchair and nodded off. When he awoke it was already broad daylight and he took a startled look at the clock, he maintains.

He had to be quick off the mark. He shaved, rinsed his face in cold water and left the flat. He found a taxi in front of the cathedral and gave his office address. There he found Celeste in her cubbyhole. She greeted him fulsomely. Nothing for me? asked Pereira. Nothing new, Dr Pereira, replied Celeste, except they've given me a week's holiday. And waving the calendar at him she continued: I'll be back next Saturday, for a whole week you'll have to do without me, nowadays the State protects the underprivileged, people like me I mean, we're not organized into corporations for nothing. We'll try to bear your absence as best we may, muttered Pereira, as he plodded upstairs.

He entered the office, took the "Obituaries" file from the shelf, put it in a leather briefcase and left again. He called in at the Café Orquídea, reckoning that he had time to sit down for five minutes and have a drink. He settled himself at a table. Dr Pereira, a lemonade? asked Manuel brightly. No thanks, replied Pereira, I'll have a dry port, I'd rather have a dry port.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Patrick Creagh.

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