A life of quiet desperation under the Portuguese sun

One day I was in Cavan buying paint, the next I was in the Algarve


I went to Portugal for a week because I got a last-minute bargain on the internet. One day I was in Cavan buying white emulsion paint for the ceiling, and the next day I was on the eighth floor of a hotel in the Algarve, with a balcony view of the blue swimming pool below and the blue ocean beyond and in between a forest of white walls and terracotta-tiled roofs.

It was 6pm as I unpacked and the lights of the bars and honkytonks glowed in the distance. I went downstairs to the hotel lounge in search of fun.

There were five women in the bar arguing about various men they had met the previous night.

Their bodies were like dried cadavers and their teeth as white as the paint I bought in Cavan and one of them stared at me as she played with the gold that hung around her neck and dripped from her wrists.

I became alarmed they might impose themselves on me, so I fled to my room and drank brandy alone and watched the news on Portuguese television.

In the morning the sun was blazing as I stood on the balcony wearing a small white towel around my groin.

Exposing my flesh

Far below a black cat sat at the swimming pool and five Spanish teenage girls in bikinis rubbed sun lotion over their legs. Boys with torsos bursting through their skin, and veins crawling around their upper arms like young ivy circling a tree were stretching in the long grass. The idea of exposing my flesh in the company of such warriors seemed ridiculous so I put on a long trousers and a white shirt and went walking down town.

People at cafe tables in the old town square were eating chicken piri-piri, and a man from Ecuador in a feathery headdress played a bamboo flute, and a white-faced clown mimicked the gait of innocent promenaders. I sat in the shade of a cafe as a wizened African woman begged around the tables, with a cardboard sign that said “I have to feed my children”, but I averted my eyes until she was gone.

By noon it said 35 degrees in green digits on the farmacia clock and I went to an Italian restaurant for penne arrabiata which was wonderful although my nostrils picked up a disturbing tang in the air and then I saw a waitress carrying a tray of rashers, eggs and sausages to a cheerful family from Northern Ireland. As they washed it down with pots of tea it said 37 degrees on the farmacia clock.

Dazzling torsos

I was so hot after lunch that I sat on the bidet in my hotel bathroom; an elegant sink for washing the genitalia and inner buttocks. I dried myself with two dainty white towels that hung on a bar above the bidet and mused to myself how far from such delicacies I was reared in Cavan.

Thus the week went by, one day blending into another, my body constantly perspiring and evacuating various wastes and juices as I consumed bottles of vinho verde with sardines and sea bass, and crepes with lashings of ice-cream.

Dublin women smoked at the pool and stretched on the sun benches with only the tiny bidet towels on their heads to block the sun.

And as the sun went down each evening the boys with the dazzling torsos came out to play, swaggering through the hot air in the hope of attracting females of the species into their embrace.

I slithered in to an adult shop one evening to investigate the excesses of a sordid mind and I was fingering a plastic object that looked like a broom handle when the tattooed cadaver behind the counter asked me was there anything in particular I was looking for. “Just looking,” I blurted, red-faced, and fled to the street.

It was a week of fish, on the grill, in the pan or deep-fried, and blue in the sky. The white-faced clown and the flute player in his tribal headdress and the begging woman from Africa appeared in the same place at the same time every day.

I saw a fat man sprawled on the beach like a dead whale and a tan woman with no bikini.

But only the woman with the cardboard sign came to me at night, and kept me awake with her quiet desperation, and held me sleepless all the way home on the plane.

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