We went to Portugal for a week, staying with Rob from Oman (for complicated reasons) and Keith and Marina from London. We were on the seaside. The wind howled, the rain descended relentlessly and the breakers from the Atlantic grew to ever more improbable heights and crashed onto the shore. It was just like the summer holidays I spent years ago with my young family in the west of Ireland.
The better half resolved to mount the improbably high breakers, an aspiration equivalent to the dog’s relentless desire to mount the bottoms of passing Dobermans. She hired a wetsuit and a board and took surfing lessons. It was a doomed ambition, however, although she enjoyed her time in the surf and her trainer, Vasco, has high hopes for her, when the gales have passed over.
Between squalls I saw The Jolly Thought hull down to the west. Rob had hoped to thank the son personally for the Lee Enfield. The pirate ethicist, however, acting as temporary captain, decided against attempting a landing through the uncertain Lisbon shoals. I thought he might send in a ketch but he decided not to risk it.
One day we went into Lisbon. I was last there thirteen years ago. It was the day that the great fado singer Amalia Rodriguez died. I remember driving into the cathedral square in the small hours of the morning and it was alight with candles, a queue of people stretching into the side streets, all waiting to pay their last respects. The next day I bought CDs of fado and resolved to come back one day and hear it in the clubs.
So we did. Portugal increasingly conforms to Spanish timing, and nothing really starts until after nine o’clock, so we spent the day looking at cathedrals, we rode the trams and ate and drank in absurdly cheap and friendly little bars.
There are snooty and expensive fado clubs and no doubt funky ones where tourists are never seen and we chose one in between. The patron was advertised as singing there, which seemed to be a good sign. He was a man in his middle years with swept back hair and an attitude of infinite villainy. There were also two young women. One wondered vaguely if they were his daughters. Backing them were an expressionless guitar player (or viola player as they confusingly call them in Portuguese) and a nervous performer on the Portuguese guitar, which is high and double-stringed like a mandolin, the counter-melody to the singer. He was right to be nervous, as he wasn’t very good.
One of the young women was to start. They were unamplified so she gestured ineffectively to the room to ask for quiet. The better half bellowed Shut Up, which endeared her to the performers. This was to have consequences.
The music was extraordinary, the passion and theatricality of the singing and the interplay of the melody of the song and that of the guitar. The patron and the two women all sang and sometimes the women sang together, facing each other, then shrugging apart, as the words demanded, like an Iberian Agnetha and Annafrid.
After an hour or so of this they came round and sold us their CDs. They had made one each. The CDs were on the expensive side but it was worth it as they signed them for us, ripping off the cellophane first in a passionate manner.
The patron, who was already impressed with the better half’s volume in quelling the room and was not acquainted with her occasional tonal imprecision when in song, flourished his felt-tip and demanded our names so that we could be identified as dedicatees. Marina, Keith, Rob and Mr and Mrs A La Blague, the better half said. He wrote it all down on the CD leaflet, added some affectionate remarks in Portuguese, signed it and returned to the stage for the second set.
He did not however ask which of us was which and this was his undoing.
He embarked on a love song. Raising his arm towards the better half in the pointing gesture with which Mitt Romney appears to feel particularly comfortable, he sobbed:
Ah Marina, Marina!
Then he gestured that he should be joined on stage for a duet.
It had been a long day and Marina, the apparent subject of his address, who is not (as I am sure she will not object to my saying) in the first flush either of youth or fitness, had gone to sleep dormouse-like on the table and so was unable to assist him.
The better half, his real intended subject, is aware of her occasional tonal imprecision when in song and so kept her seat. She suggested sotto voce that I should go on stage and join the patron in a duet but I thought that that would only confirm the suspicions that too many foreigners hold about English men.
It was a tricky moment but it passed in good humour and later the patron was able to explain everything to the better half while Rob and I slipped out for a quick absinthe in a neighbouring bar.
Hours later we woke Marina and went home. It was one or two in the morning and we drove through villages of whitewashed houses, silent except for the occasional brightly lit bars. Along the roadside staggered telephone poles and beyond them were little fields. It was just like I remember the west of Ireland, slipping home from gigs, towards the sea.