The night before his death, Mister Miranda arrived at the Café Funchal a bit after eleven. He chose his usual outdoor seat, close to the balustrade overlooking the river. From the inner pocket of his jacket he pulled out a case containing a fountain pen and two volumes, which he laid down on the table. He used to bring with him the pocket edition of Camões’ Filodemo and a yellow cardboard binder, on the cover of which, in beautiful calligraphy, it was written: “The express of seventeen past seven”. He usually worked on the crumpled papers of his manuscript all night long, making corrections and annotations on the edge of the text, until the owners closed the Café at the first light of dawn. That night, instead, he didn’t even give a glance at it. It seemed that something was worrying him.
By that time he was a regular costumer and, as soon as he saw him, the waiter moved toward him to take orders. When the waiter approached him, he noticed something different in that quiet and lonely man: that night Mister Miranda’s eyes were sad. He wore a sapphire jacket, whose contours mingled with the hills of the surrounding valley, visible beyond the railing. When the wind rose from the Douro, Mister Miranda laced the velvet buttons against the cold. An English beret of light cotton hided his bristly and reddish hairs, an evident legacy from his Breton mother, along with his pale skin. His hands were massive and gnarled, more suitable to hold an oar than a pen: one brushed the table cloth, as to ensure that the world around him still existed, while the other, resting on the hollowed cheek, supported the weight of his whole figure. They seemed big anchors.
«Good evening, mister Miranda», started off the waiter diverting the man from his thoughts.
«Good evening, Alberto», he answered gently. «Give me the usual, please».
«I’m sorry, but Ramos Pinto is over», replied Alberto, his hands crossed beyond his back.
«Tonight we have some excellent Graham’s Vintage. It’s a little more expensive, but I can assure you that you’re not going to regret this choice».
«I take one bottle, then. And don’t forget my plant».
«Of course, Mister Miranda».
Few minutes later, the waiter came back from the bar holding a metal tray containing the Port wine bottle and a just washed glass. In the other hand, instead, he carried a crock in which there was a little foxglove. At the specific request of Mister Miranda, every night Alberto brought the plant to his table. Mister Miranda gave it to him the first day he went to Café Funchal, some years before, and after giving Alberto some escudos, he asked to keep it for him, since he hadn’t a place to put it. So Alberto kept it on a shelf in the kitchen of the Café and he watered it every day. Mister Miranda was a silent costumer and he always paid his bills: he showed no oddities, so the managers of Café Funchal were happy to please him.
«Tonight you are not going to working on your book, are you?», said the boy while he placed objects on the table.
«Believe me, Alberto, that is not the right night to write», explained Mister Miranda indolently.
«Are you in trouble with the plot? Maybe I can help you: I always go to the cinema and I can give you the idea you were looking for».
«The story is very simple and I have it all in my mind. It is about the journey of the express train Porto-Lisbon in a sunny morning», sighed Mister Miranda. «The problem is that, sometimes, we forget about time. I have been writing this book for my all life, but maybe it wasn’t enough».
Before Alberto could ask him what he was referring to, a young couple called him from the other side of the tiny square to order. The boy smiled, apologized with Mister Miranda and while leaving he said: «I hope you will let me read it, when it will be finished».
«Only the best pages, boy», pointed the man. «Only the best pages».
While he signed on his notebook a caipirinha and a sparkling water, Alberto controlled Mister Miranda with one eye. The man was slumped on the table, staring into space. Sometimes he looked at the flowers which arose from the trembling stem. But the distraction lasted only a few seconds and, in less than no time, the plant’s purple shades got lost in a cloud of forgotten thoughts.
Mister Miranda had other reasoning in his head. His attention seemed devoted to a scrupulous and listless investigation: his look wandered in the square, between the floor’s cobblestones, the wrought iron table legs and the shoes of Café Funchal’s visitors. Under the dim light of lampposts, his aqueous pupils drew senseless trajectory, balancing between restlessness and a bleak resignation that Alberto couldn’t explain to himself. The night hours consumed one after the other: Alberto ran between the zinc bar and the square, while Mister Miranda stood together with the Port wine and his own problems.
Then, at around half past two, while he was carrying a birthday cake, Alberto noticed that someone seated at Mister Miranda’s table. He looked carefully and he immediately recognized Estanislau Ferreira. He wasn’t a usual customer of Café Funchal and he was rarely seen in that part of the city. But sometimes he stopped there for a card game. As far as Alberto knew, he was the kind it was better not to deal with and, above all, one it wasn’t nice to lose at cards with. No one knew the colour of his eyes: a pair of dark glasses, rimmed with a thin silver line, hided them day and night. The wide front revealed the beginning of baldness: the hairline was at the nape and his hair, lined by the signs of ages, circumnavigated his ears and rejoined the bushy beard. A pair of awful moustaches completed the frame of a grim and solid face, which inspired a spontaneous fear to everyone who ran into him.
His olive complexion perfectly matched with the mahogany Cuban he obstinately smoked, with large mouthfuls, and his arrival was always announced by a penetrating smell of cigar. The towering neck was hide by a turtleneck sweater, on which he wore an ash jacket of traditional design. The edge of the right sleeve betrayed the existence of the tattoo of a cross which developed on his forearm.
Everything happened in a moment. Mister Miranda, terrorized, tried to stand up, but the other man caught his wrist and compelled him to remain seated. With a pointing finger, he growled a river of words which, from his position, Alberto couldn’t fully understand. Then, as he had arrived, Estanislau Ferreira left Café Funchal, leaving behind him a smoke cloud. He had said what had to be said. Alberto hastily put the cocktails he was carrying to reach Mister Miranda. He crouched as if he had been invested by a tornado. The boy tried to put a hand on his shoulder to reassure him, but the man, with an unexpected gesture for his peaceful nature, escaped him violently and hurtled across Café Funchal’s tables. Alberto couldn’t neither ask him if he was okay, that he had already disappeared in the narrow streets of the old town.
Then, with his great surprise, the boy noticed that Mister Miranda forgot his manuscript on the table.
Dawn arrived from the hills, through Douro’s riverbed, revealing a cloudless sky. Fishermen’s houses, wineries and churches’ spires were coloured by a thousands of tulips. It had been a long night, and Mister Miranda was tired. In his mind there were no more foxgloves, bottles of aged Port wine, uncompleted novels, gambling debts and gentle waiter. From the middle of Dom Luis I bridge, everything seemed so small.
He looked at the river for the last time, then he dropped into the void. And, while the world disappeared around him, he thought he saw the steal soul of the express of seventeen past seven that, in the flickering light of dawn, was crossing one of the endless bridges of the city, unhurriedly, as if to give him a last farewell.
For a fraction of a second, he feared that it was all a figment of his imagination. But then, he realized that it didn’t matter. It would be a magnificent finale, he thought.
English version edited by Francesca Ceccarelli