The Portuguese Diaries: The Falling Baby

“We are formed by what we desire”. I dive in and out of John Irving’s latest novel but this one line from its opening page resonates and keeps drawing me back to the initial lines of the book. The truth is, my eyes are failing. Small and constricted, the font is the frontline in a battle to covey the words from the page to my brain.

This was our desire. Throughout the coldest British winter for 60 years we talked of it. Huddled for warmth under sofa throws and sweaters, hoods pulled up over our heads, this was our end game: a big house on Portugal’s southern Atlantic coast, baking in the heat, doors flung open, walking from the bedroom to the pool in 10 steps. Ten months of work and toil, rising before dawn and home after sunset in service to children has beaten the path to the great iron gates that mark the entrance to this 6 bedroom house. Personal energies distilled into a week’s occupation- living like the rich we so despise.

Timeless and dragging, the Sun pulls opposite the strong Atlantic breeze that constantly blows through the endless miles of Algarve coastline. The name is Moorish; Al-Gharv, meaning the western lands. In Roman times this was the end of the world, the furthest reaches known to man. Now it is a juxtaposition of package holiday Med and a rich history that gave us the first circumnavigation of the globe. Shops jostle shoulder to shoulder with inflatable rafts shaped like crocodiles and Portuguese linen delicately embroidered with the green of its former North African masters and Sangria red.

Twelve of us- on the whole a blood relation group peppered with a few additional friends occupy the house in the baked valley just inland from Gale Beach. The restaurants are few and crowded. Booking is essential. I am sent out in the noon day sun to secure a table for the same evening. The English like to eat at 7pm, the Portuguese at 9. Ever conscious of being a tourist who likes to be immersed in the local culture, I opt for an 8pm reservation.I stand in the restaurant waiting for the attentions of the bottle blonde Portuguese woman who stands behind the bar doting on her 6 year old daughter’s hair. A second child, a baby just old enough to sit autonomously is perched on the edge of the bar facing its family. Children are respected here, more so than in London. Restaurants welcome them. The very young can be seen chattering exuberantly and peeking their heads out from under the table cloths in most eateries.

The Portuguese mother continues to toy with her daughter’s hair. A brief exchange of smiles are shared between myself and the 6 year old but she mainly keeps her eyes focussed squarely on the baby perched precariously (IMHO) on the counter’s edge. I recognise the mother from the garish photo of her in a wedding dress which fills the great void between the bar and kitchen. Reservations must wait. There are children to attend to. And I approve.

With a twisting shoulder I watch the baby struggling to gain its fledgling balance. Default settings of child protection embedded in the ten months of dark working days bubble to the surface. I glance at the mother and daughter who so attentively had been watching the infant. But their collective gaze is temporarily distracted as a thick, blue elastic band is looped around the young girl’s ponytail.

In that split second, in this land where time is measured by the Sun dragging opposite the Atlantic winds, I shoot a glance back at the baby now extending its other arm in a primitive attempt to steady itself. But the balance has been tipped. The baby is leaning forward and falling irretrievably from the bar. Shouting out a guttural, inactive sound- void of recognisable words, I jump onto the counter top. With a great sweep of my bear-like arm I gather the baby up to my even greater body.

Both mother and daughter stare at me in disbelief. The clocks are standing still. The sun is not dragging but stalled. The mother’s face is contorted and confused, the antithesis of the joyous expression she wears in the wedding photo.

My heart is racing and filled with adrenaline. All my senses (including my failing eyesight, dear readers) are at alarm level. I look again at the young girl, her hands still aloft fussing on her ponytail. Her mother’s puzzled eyes meet mine as (I assume) she is realising the gravity of the situation.

It is only then that I feel the baby’s rubbery texture on my forearm. The hardness pressing into my torso is an electrical box on its back for 2 C-size batteries. I am holding a doll.

Half laughing, half panting from the excitement I hand the doll to the little girl with the ponytail just as the woman’s husband (I recognise him from the wedding photo) enters from the kitchen door.

Patting my heart with the palm of my hand I relay to the groom, in slow and simple English, my misconception and my reason for being on top of the bar. He translates the story into Portuguese to his wife and daughter who burst out laughing.

I am not asked to leave a name for my 8pm reservation for a table for 12 people. They will remember me. I am the crazy English man who rescued the doll. The man made the fool in an attempt to keep a child safe- albeit a rubbery one motorised by 2 C-size batteries.

We are formed by what we desire.

Keep the Faith,

The Head


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