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the pleasure of simple things


Encircled with shading net, it is cooler on the patio than on the outside-outside, the rest of the garden. Through its dark green weave, I can still see the glare of the summery heat, blazing white, overwhelming. Outside the netting, it is almost too hot to breathe, almost too hot to live. Inside the netting, life still seems possible. It is only April; it should not be this hot, not yet. I wonder what the real summer will be like, come July and August.

I went to the fishmongers this morning. So much fish. So much variety. While here, I always try to eat what I can’t get hold of in England: ‘carapau’, my firm favourite; how I’ve missed it all these years. And then the ‘fanecas’, so delicately flavoured; I could never understand why the Brits, as proud as they are of their ‘fish and chips”, can disdain such lovely fish as pout and horse mackerel. Silly, silly, silly people; they don’t know what they’re missing out on!

And then… And then there is sabre fish.

Ah, sabre fish!  Mom favours the delicate filaments of the silver variety; me, I love the white meatiness of the black one, with its scent and flavour of the sea. I was in another patio the first time I ever tried back sabre fish, one very unlike this one where I now sit. That other patio, somewhere back in Madeira island when time could still afford itself a slow sliding flight over life, was perched over the cliffs and the gently murmuring ocean below. The tables, dressed in brilliant white linen tablecloths matched with red gingham napkins, nested sleepily under the vast canopies of parasols. On each table, a profusion of colourful flowers carelessly spilled over the porcelain lips of their vases. On the far side of the patio, there was an open oven and barbecue, where the fish and the ‘borôa do caco‘ were being cooked, for all diners to see. The scents wafted all around the patio, cascading over the balcony, up the steps of a narrow, rock-cut path that constituted the only access to the restaurant. It was early evening, the sun already gilded and descending towards the horizon; it had  seemed quite idyllic.

But it isn’t black sabre fish I chose for this evening’s meal. Mom has been talking about battered sardines or horse mackerel, so I bought her some. They’re silvery, sparkling hues of green and blue, their eyes so dark their blue is almost the colour of a clear, New Moon August night. That shade of blue. And me, well, I’ve been sort of over-indulging on something else nobody but the Portuguese seem to eat and love: nabiças. I.e., turnip greens. I.e., a kind of turnip that does not grow a proper head, but bushes out in masses of beautiful, peppery scented and flavoured leaves. A bit like baby kale, but so, so much better.

And thus dinner comes easily, naturally, peacefully together. A dinner of the poor, but fit for a table of kings: turnip greens that everyone grows on the bit of land by their back doors, chopped and cooked in slightly salted water, ladled over chopped rye borôa and seasoned with raw olive oil. Back at Nan’s, we knew that whenever there was any borôa left by Friday morning, sopas escorridas would ensue. Any bits of hard, stale bread left over from the week would be used up; nothing ever went to waste, and what the humans didn’t consume the pigs would.

To go with our soup, today like in the days of old, battered fish the Portuguese way: an eggy batter if the hens had graced you with an egg that day, the fish cleaned but whole, the lot spooned over a shallow pan of boiling oil. It fizzled and sizzled and crackled, the oil spitting minute bits of batter into our aprons, our hands. It also made the fish “stretch”, Auntie said; once on the serving plate, it all looked like a whole lot more than it really was… Over the patio’s canopy, the cats would sprawl themselves over the roof of the pigeon coop, under the vine-dappled afternoon sun; their tummies like little balloons, rounded full and contented with the fish innards that had been their special treat.

I go back to my roots again and again. Everything seems to have some sort of link to somewhere in the past, to what often seems someone else’s life. Promises, somehow, never came through — perhaps because they were unspoken, simple expectations of what life would be, become. And yes. There seems to always be some sort of patio in my life. It’s just that there’s no more cats in this one; or a dog asking for a crust of bread soaked in olive oil. And somehow, it feels a bit incomplete, as if the painter forgot to finish his painting.

Oh, the painter. The painter is as derelict as I am when it comes to my words. He’s failing to paint the rest of my picture. Just like he failed to see Mom smiling, very early this morning, when she thought I was still asleep and there was no one to watch her, little bird picking her steps among flowers only she knows are there, and tenderly plucking the tangerines from the branches of her little tree at the bottom of the garden, and depositing them, one by one, one by one, one by one, on her gathered, basket-like, bird-painted apron.

I had smiled, of course, as I’d spied her from the upstairs window. Who wouldn’t, with such perfect tableau. And then a tear had stubbornly demanded safe conduit into my day: if only everything else in our life was this simple, this natural, this peaceful….

© Nina Light 2016


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