The streets here are steep and narrow, helped along the way by occasional staircases. Ouch! I find it’s hard to walk on cobblestones like this, up a hill that the locals seem to climb so easily. I can see two well-built men bounding up the road behind us, and I wonder if they are always in such a rush.
Eventually, the street opens into a bright square with fountains and statues. We sit down in a café with a spectacular view of the harbour. The sun plays on the white buildings and we see them reflected in the blue water below.
I know this is the famous city where the earth trembled, the sea boiled, buildings collapsed, and everything went up in flames. Voltaire wrote about it. Thousands of people died.
That was more than two centuries ago, Victor says, it never happened again. Tens of thousands were killed in other disasters, but not the same way. Tourists take too much interest in natural disasters, he says. And not enough in the other kind.
Victor came to stay with us after he had been in jail for more than a year. I was a shy teenager at the time, and Victor seemed to come from a whole other world.
They wanted names, he said. After interrogation and torture we were locked in tiny cages. Big enough to fall down in, too small to stand up. How did he survive? His comrades organized an escape. How did he make it out of Portugal and all the way across the ocean to my country? He did not say.
When he came to us, all he had was a brown suit of clothes and a battered leather satchel with brass locks. He slept in our spare room and worked at the kitchen table while he recovered his strength. He liked to use my portable typewriter because it had the accent keys he needed to write in his own language.
After a few weeks, I took Victor around town. We went to a neighbourhood where he was welcomed like a distant cousin. We went to see priests and politicians and newspaper editors, and he told them his country’s story. Domestic dictatorship and colonial empire. Both corrupted to the core, he explained. The world should know that his country was never really one of the western democracies, he said. After fifty years, he told them, the masquerade had to end.
Later, Victor moved on to another city, and some years afterwards, the change did come. It arrived suddenly, on an April morning in a quiet coup. Officers in the armed forces announced that they were fed up fighting in the colonies and enforcing the regime at home. People came out in the streets that day with flowers and placed carnations in the muzzles of the soldiers’ guns. They called it the Carnation Revolution. There was no shooting. The army just arranged for the old dictator to leave and invited the political parties to come out from the underground.
Now it is almost a year later, and it is my turn to be Victor’s guest, my first time in his country. We sit here in the café, and there are carnations on the table. Everywhere in the city there are carnations – in the windows, on billboards and posters, on the walls. We sit here on a spring day eating custard tarts, drinking strong coffee, celebrating, anticipating.
Later today we will go to the bullfight ring, says Victor. I say I have no interest in seeing a bullfight, but Victor laughs and says, not to see the bulls, my friend. That tired spectacle is over and done. This will be a comício, a big political rally. Everyone is coming to hear the speakers. We need to decide on the next chapter in this revolution of ours.
Looking out the window, I see two men again, the same ones who were rushing up the hill behind us. Now they seem to be strolling slowly around the square. After a while, they enter the café and take the table beside us. I have my back to them, so I don’t pay any attention. Victor glances over, then suddenly puts his head down and grips the table with both hands. Don’t look around, he says to me in a whisper.
I have not seen Victor like this before. Usually he is very calm, able to adjust to any change in circumstances.
They are wearing red carnations, he says to me, both of them are wearing carnations.
That’s common enough these days, I think to myself, looking at Victor with questions in my eyes.
You don’t understand, says Victor, I know one of these men.
Yes? I say.
I know him from the Aljube, he says.
That was the name of the notorious prison.
He was there, says Victor, still speaking under his breath. He gave the orders. Every day.
What will you do? I ask Victor.
Watch me, he says. I have decided. Be ready to leave.
Victor stands up, and I follow. He approaches the men’s table.
Bom dia, Victor asks in a surprisingly civil voice, how are you gentlemen today?
Bem, comrade, good, says one of the men.
Coming to the bullfight today? Victor asks.
The man looks at him, about to say something. But Victor reaches down with both hands, grabs the man by the collar, and rips the carnation from his shirt. Victor uses so much force that the seam of the shirt is torn open.
Both men jump up, ready to use their fists. But Victor and I have already turned our backs and left the café. We join the crowds in the street. The men do not follow.
We are walking arm in arm. Victor still has the flower from the man’s shirt. He looks at it and laughs as he hands the carnation to me.
Olá, he says to me, the power is with us. We have the power of the flower.
Morris Alexander is a Canadian writer.