by Robert Steward
Lisbon, Portugal 2003
“Um bilhete de volta para Cacém, se faz favor,” I said to the man in the railway station ticket office.
“Cacém?” he asked, tapping away on his computer.
He had a Benfica football badge on the lapel of his blue jacket.
“Sim,” I replied.
Next to the computer sat a cast iron ticket machine with Made in England 1880,written on the back.
“Aqui está você,” he said, handing me the train ticket.
Later, he would always recognise me: “Cacém?” he would always ask.
I went to the platform and waited for the train. The sun was still high, and standing near the track, I felt its warmth on my face. The sky so blue that I couldn’t help but stare at it. What was it about a Lisbon sky that was so absorbing, so captivating, so entrancing?
The train to Cacém arrived, and the automatic doors hissed open. I stepped on and sat by the window. There were hardly any passengers on board. I took out a large book from my shoulder bag. It had BerlitzSchoolofEnglishwritten on the cover, it contained endless pages of language drills, and it weighed a tonne. With this book I was supposed to teach English to six Sofarimax pharmaceutical workers.
Only a month before, Ian, the head of studies, taught me and two other hopefuls Portuguese using the method. He was tall, had fair hair and piercing blue eyes. He was from Liverpool.
“O lápis é na mesa,”he said, pointing to the pencil on the table.
“O lápis é na mesa,” we repeated.
“O lápis é na mesa,” he said again.
“O lápis é na mesa,” we repeated again.
“Onde está o lápis?” he asked.
“É na mesa,” we answered in unison.
After we had established that the pencil was on the table, we moved on to a piece of paper. This was supposed to go on until you either became fluent in the language or went clinically insane.
I got off the train at Cacém. Outside the station was an old bus with Sofarimax written on the front. It was empty apart from the driver.
“Sofarimax?” I asked the driver.
“Sim,” he said, looking me up and down.
I climbed up the steps and sat in the sun. On the back of the seat in front was a metal cigarette stubber. It reminded me of the buses I used to take to school. I examined my watch. Three thirty–it was still early.
A few people boarded the bus. They greeted the driver and chatted to each other. Some glanced at me. The bus driver seemed to know everyone. He always had something to say to the passengers, always laughing and joking. When the bus was almost full, the doors automatically shut, and it pulled away with a roar.
Later, I would call this the magic bus because it was so quaint and convenient. There were others, like the bus from Piazza Cavour to the heart of Sanità in Naples, and the one from Via Balmes to the beach in Barcelona.
The bus went up the hill, round and round, higher and higher until it finally came to a stop outside a large building with Sofarimax written on it. I followed the passengers off the bus and into the building.
Inside, it was all white walls and glass. There were posters everywhere of doctors in white coats holding tablets, and by one wall a set of glass tubes intricately connected together. It reminded me of my chemistry lessons at school, especially the one about distillation. In the corner were a vending machine and a large black sofa. I glimpsed at my watch. Fifteen minutes–I still had time for a coffee.
The front of the vending machine had a picture of a smiling woman with her hands wrapped around a cup. I pressed the button: café e açúcar, and the machine whirled into action. A small plastic cup fell into position and slowly filled up with coffee. When the machine fell silent I took the cup, sat on the sofa and looked through the handbook again.
I started to have second thoughts.
The pencil is on the table, the pencil is on the table. Oh God, I thought. This isn’t going to work.
I was used to the idea of drilling, but for five minutes, not an hour and a half! My hands were clammy and my throat was dry, but at least I didn’t have a migraine like I usually did on the first day. After finishing my coffee, I took my bag and the handbook and walked down the corridor to the meeting room.
Inside was a large wooden desk with eight chairs around it, and on the far wall a poster of a woman dressed in white, looking into a microscope.
I placed the handbook on the desk and turned to the correct page. Just then, a man appeared at the door. He looked quite casual in his open white shirt and light grey trousers. He was about my height–five foot nine, but had a bigger frame and was going grey.
“Olá,” he said. “Are you the new English teacher?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I’m Rob.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said. “I’m Mateus.”
He shook my hand; he had a firm handshake.
As the students came in, I ticked them off the register: Mateus, Vera, Fernando, Ana, Gabriela. There was one missing.
“Does anyone know where Sofia is?” I asked.
“She said she will be late.” Fernando smiled.
“Oh, okay,” I said. “Before we start we’re just going to do a little getting-to-know-you activity.”
Just then, a woman opened the door.
“Excuse me,” she said a little breathless. “Sorry for the late.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Are you Sofia?”
“Yes,” she nodded and sat down at the desk, putting her handbag on her lap.
I screwed up a piece of paper and rolled it into a ball.
“Okay, so my name’s Rob, and I’m thirty-two years old, and I come from a place called Bromley, near London. I like playing football, travelling and learning foreign languages. I have one sister, called Anna, who’s about four years older than me, and she lives in Wales. Do you know where Wales is?”
One of the students said: “País de Gales?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “So, she has three children, called Patrick, Daniel and Emily, and she’s a nursery nurse–she looks after children.”
The students nodded.
“My parents are retired–they don’t work any more. My dad likes playing golf and tennis, and my mum likes working in the garden. And–and that’s it.”
I threw the paper ball to Mateus.
“Now it’s your turn.”
“Okay,” he said. “My name’s Mateus and I have forty-eight years old–”
“You haveforty-eight years old?” I interrupted.
“Sorry, I am forty-eight years old,” he continued, “and I am from a small town outside Lisbon. I work in the research department and…”
Mateus talked about his family, his hobbies; he was a Mini enthusiast. Five months later he would show me his blue, 1960s Mark I Mini.
“I restored the whole car myself,” he would say proudly.
It was beautiful.
When Mateus had finished, he threw the paper ball to another student. She dropped it.
“Butterfingers.” I smiled.
She picked the ball up from the floor. Her face was tanned, and her dark hair tightly curled, her dress black and grey.
“So, tell us something about yourself,” I said.
“Well, my name’s Vera, and I live in Cacém. I work here for over five years now–”
“You’ve been working here for five years?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “I am married with two children and…”
And so the paper ball travelled from one student to another, each one with a different story to tell, each one revealing something about themselves. When it got to Sofia, the last student, I glanced at the handbook and my breathing became shallow.
Oh gosh, I thought. I can’t do it.
Her voice became just a murmur.
Come on–you can do it, I thought. The pencil is on the table. The pencil is on the table.
“And, er stop,” she said.
“Great.” I smiled. “You can throw the ball to me now.”
I looked at the clock; we had just over an hour left.
The pencil is on the table. The pencil is on the table.
“So,” I said, scratching my head, “we’re going to do a little speaking activity now.”
I dived into my bag and pulled out a photocopy of Half-Minute Topics and laid it flat on the table. Susan Kay (the game’s creator) had come to my rescue once again. The students looked at each other curiously. I closed the Berlitz handbook and never opened it again.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing