Image credit: Cathleen Gordon - "Braddon"

“Nina! Hey, Nina!”

The girl with blue eyes walks past without hearing. Or so she pretends.

“Nina, congratulations!”

The young man lowers the train window. Nina is now a few meters on towards the station building. She stops and turns. With a reserved air she tilts her chin in the direction of the voice.

"Nina, I haven’t seen you for ages.”

She recognizes him. Her mouth is a smile that withers and dies. She becomes distant, colorless.

“Ah!”

The man leans out over his arms. Emotion spreads across his stubble-darkened cheeks. He wants Nina to feel it, too.

Her figure is stark against the flat white stones of the mosaic pavement. An outline. Abstract.

She waits. Motionless, undecided, icy.

 His own doubt surprises him. He barely recognizes that face he used to know so well. Is he mistaken? All the man wants is to bury himself in the blue seat of his first-class car.

A train whistle. Like a saxophone, he thinks. It fades before reaching the concourse. The thirty-five past train rolls off. The silhouette that might have been Nina’s is stamped sharp into the empty space left behind.

Passengers board and sit down. Some tread heavily, others move with listless steps. The seats wheeze. Tires slowly leaking air.

Through the open door a cold draft reaches the far end of the train car. A shiver traverses the young man. He withdraws his arms awkwardly from the open window and thrusts his hand into his pocket. His handkerchief cuts off a lone sneeze. The moment unfolds like a certainty: the sneeze, the handkerchief in his hands, which trembled for a moment but are now steady. As poised and serene as his spirits. Yes, it’s Nina. He knows her too well to be mistaken. He’d lodged with her aunt when he came over to study agronomy. Back then she was a pigtailed minx who’d burst into his room each month to share the treats he got from home and kept in boxes in the corner. They’d become pals. He won her heart by showing her how to eat his food: couscous toasted with honey, papaya jam, cassava flour.

Nina grew up and—a little to his surprise as he noted with a wry smile—she became a strong-willed young woman. A real friend. The balls at the Overseas Student Association cemented their affection. One afternoon, he took her to a tea dance and, from that Sunday on, they felt like old accomplices in for some high times. And there’d plenty of those. He smiled.

The train announces its departure. Nina, or her lookalike, can barely hide her impatience.

"I haven’t seen you for ages.”

The man reaches out, a gesture full of warmth. “You got married? Congratulations!”

Nina rakes back her hair. She sports a modern cut. Oddly aloof, she asks, “Ah! Is this your train?”

Her voice tumbles out onto the white stones. It reaches him without warmth.

The young man nods, disconcerted. Nina walks away towards the station building She waves without turning back.

The train pulls slowly away. He sinks into his seat.

The sun darts across the windows, playing the warm tones that line the train car, before coming to land in a rectangle on the end seat.

Through the window—two panes thick now that the top one has been lowered—he can still see Nina. On she goes, unruffled, unmistakably her.

He runs his hands over his hair, pressing it against his low forehead. The lady in the next seat looks over and smiles. He’s irritated and frowns at her. In this awkward moment, two’s a crowd.

Santos station, Alcântara, Algés.

The train fills up along the way. Space narrows in the stifling cars. The aisles fill, too. An unpleasant sticky feeling trickles down the young man’s body and comes to rest at his feet, which are damp in the sweltering compartment. The wrinkle between his clenched brows deepens. He glances sidelong at the lady as she munches her way line-by-line through a single page of her book.

Again he flattens his hair against his low forehead, a tic of his when distracted.

In truth it wasn’t Nina he’d spoken to. It wasn’t his old partner in crime. Let me see my love! the record sobs. Its hysterical voice thrills them. The drunken, anguished voice. They clap their hands, follow its hot rhythms. Their thighs twist, their legs flex anxiously. Hey… hey… hey. Torsos tipped back. Like that. Hey… hey… Let me see my love! Forward. Yeah. Yeah. Their fingers click, sweat soaks their clothes and their mouths split into smiles. Tired, they lean against the jukebox but continue to mark time. It’s the voice of the record that’s in charge. Cigarettes are ground into the floor and the others keep on with the same mad, mad tempo. Tangled laughter swells up on those hot, still nights. There were lots of nights like that back then, tumbling past in a wild rush. Estoril, Guincho beach, who knows. Phrases that only they—their group—used.

“Total stupidity.”

“Hey, did you spit or speak?”

“Oh, I lost Tony. This’s a soda. Did you hear the one about the gorillas?”

“Shut it, you won’t get me from there.”

He slides down in the seat, lets his head droop and sticks out his lower lip in that way of his.

Nina left him KO, he thinks, re-playing the scene in the station. She hadn’t even let him near the different world she now belonged to. She’d shrugged him off with the poise she’d always shown when faced with a decision.

He whistles quietly, adrift.

They had played around for quite a while. A few kisses, nothing of consequence though, nothing serious. He’d always imagined himself finishing his studies and going home to Cape Verde, marrying a nice mulata.

One day she’d come into his room to ask for a pen. He got up, snuck behind the door and closed it carefully. Nina, who was still leaning over his desk looking for the pen, whirled round, her face wearing the fierce expression he’d seen on other occasions.

He laughed and sat down again.

He dug his elbows into the desk, rested his chin on his hands and looked mockingly at her, “Idiot! I told you ….”

Nina didn’t answer. She let him know a few days later, though. She would never marry him. The idea of having colored kids one day put her off.

That’s us done he thinks, as he looks her up and down.

They went on being friends as if nothing had happened. But the dalliance stopped there.

He shrugs his shoulders.

“Ah, Nina, you’re all wrapped up in your new life. It’ll pass ….”

The train swooshes into the tunnel at Caxias. It rocks along the station tracks before coming to a lolling halt. With a grate like sandpaper, the doors slide back to receive a wave of sickly sweet hairspray.

“Look who it is!”

The train heaves off with a jolt. The man wants to turn around to see his new companions. They laugh and talk behind him in loud voices. But he keeps his eyes fixed straight ahead.

How annoying they are.

Their conversation drowns out his thoughts.

He turns around, one brow furrowed.

"Want to come with us?” one of them asks.

He gets up and walks over. The short man puffs out a cloud of blue smoke. Chewing even as she speaks, one of the women explains, “We’re headed that way. For a bit of fresh air.”

Her fingers point out beyond him towards the lowered window. The beige wad moves from one side of her mouth to the other. She catches it between strong incisors, chews again and prepares a smile. Her fingers pull the gum pinched between her front teeth into a long string.

“The others are waiting for us. They’ve got sandwiches and dry gin,” adds the blonde. Her blue eyes, blue like Nina’s, stare at him. Cold and indifferent, though.

Nina? Which Nina? The Nina of the good times, of the tempestuous bursts of laughter, of the cigarettes they went twos on, or the other Nina, the one at the station, smiling wanly at him from afar. From the other side of everything that now separated them.

The short man exhales another puff of smoke, picks up his bag and slings it over his shoulder. The blonde and the other girl, still chewing on her gum, brush past him and stroll down the aisle, leaving that sickly scent of hairspray in their wake.

Still chewing, the beige wad shifting in her mouth, tempting him, “If you want us, we’ll be over there.”

She gestures as though thumbing a lift and points out the spot. On the other side of the window the others are waiting for them, beyond the sun that shines over the houses.

They’ve got sandwiches and dry gin.



View Original Work ↓

A rapariga de olhos azuis caminha e não ouve. Ou finge não ouvir.

“Nina, parabéns!”

O rapaz acaba de descer os vidros da janela do comboio. Nina andou dois ou mais metros além, na gare, para e volta-se. Levanta o queixo com ar reservado em direcção da voz.

“Nina, nunca mais te vi.”

Ela reconhece-o e a boca é um sorriso. Morre pelo caminho e torna-se distante e incolor.

“Ah!”

“Nunca mais te vi.”

E o companheiro, debruçado pelas axilas, mostra na face escurecida pela barba, a efusão. Quere-a comunicar à Nina.

Do calcetado de pedrinhas brancas e chatas da gare, a figura de Nina sobressai, linear e abstracta.

Ela aguarda, parada, indecisa, glacial.

Ele surpreende-se inseguro. Não consegue divisar as feições familiares durante tanto tempo. Ter-se-á enganado? Apetece-lhe afundar-se no assento azul da carruagem de primeira classe.

Um apito soa-lhe a saxofone, depois esvai-se sem chegar ao fundo da gare. É o comboio das trinta e cinco a partir. A silhueta da possível Nina recorta-se, brusca, no vazio deixado pelo comboio.

Passageiros entram e sentam-se, uns pesados, outros displicentes. Os assentos chiam com macieza. São pneus a esvaziarem-se, lentamente.

Pela porta aberta, uma lufada de ar faz corrente com a outra ao fundo da carruagem. Um arrepio percorre-o e retirando o braço com dificuldade da janela onde se debruçou, leva a mão ao bolso. O lenço atalha um espirro fugidio. O momento desenrola-se como uma certeza: o espirro e o lenço nas suas mãos. Tremem por segundos e são firmes agora. Firmes e serenas como o seu espírito. É, Nina, é. Conhece-a tão bem. Fora hóspede da tia de Nina, precisamente quando viera para se matricular em agronomia. Nesse tempo era uma pirralha de tranças. Entrava-lhe pelo quarto para comerem juntos as pequenas guloseimas recebidas todas os meses e acondicionados em caixas num canto do quarto. Assim se tornaram amigos e ele a conquistara ensinando-lhe a comer daquelas comidas: cuscuz torrado com mel, doce de papaia, farinha de pau.

Nina crescera e, não sem surpresa, verificara com certa piada: tinha-se feito uma rapariga com personalidade, além de camaradona formidável. Os bailes na Casa dos Estudantes cimentaram, de vez, a amizade. Levara-a lá uma tarde para um chá-dançante e, desde esse domingo, sentiram-se compinchas para as futuras farras. E ainda vieram a ser muitas. Sorri.

O comboio dá o sinal de partida. Nina ou a sósia de Nina reprime um ar impaciente.

“Nunca mais te vi.”

As mãos do rapaz estendem-se com um gesto de calor.

“Casaste? Parabéns!” Nina fustiga a cabeça. Sustém um penteado moderno. Responde desinteressada, estranha.

“Ah! Vais neste comboio?”

A voz cai sobre as pedrinhas e chega sem calor até ele.

O rapaz confirma, desconcertado. Nina começa a andar pela gare, depois, sem se voltar, faz um gesto com a mão.

O comboio desanda, vagaroso, e ele afunda-se no lugar.

O sol corre os vidros e poisa, em rectângulo, no espaldar do último assento, brincando com os tons quentes. Forram a carruagem, aqui ali.

Por detrás dos vidros, são agora dois, porque estão descidos, vê ainda Nina. Segue direita, calma e inconfundível.

Passa as mãos pelos cabelos e comprime-os sobre a testa curta. A senhora ao lado olha-o e sorri. Ele irrita-se e franze a testa. Sente-a importuna dentro deste momento que se arrepende de ter acontecido.

Santos, Alcântara, Algés.

O comboio enche-se pelo caminho, as carruagens tornam-se pequenas e o ambiente é abafado. As coxias vão-se enchendo também. Uma sensação incomodativa e viscosa escorrega por ele abaixo até parar nos seus pés húmidos do calor. Uma ruga vinca-se-lhe entre as sobrancelhas cerradas, enquanto olha, de soslaio, para a senhora a mastigar, linha por linha, a página do livro entre as mãos.

Alisa, de novo, o cabelo sobre a fronte curta, num costume distraído.

Na verdade, não foi com a Nina quem falou. Não foi com a companheira das pândegas. Let me see my love! O disco soluça. O histerismo da voz empolga-os. Voz bêbeda e angustiada. Batem as mãos, acompanham o ritmo de aquecer. As coxas meneiam, as pernas gingam, nervosas. Hé... hé... hé... Tronco para trás. Assim. Hé... hé... Let my see my love! Para frente. Ui, ui. As mãos estalam, o suor empasta-os e as suas bocas fendem-se em riso por entre a respiração entrecortada. Cansados, enconstam-se ao gira-discos. Continuam a marcar o compasso. A voz do disco comanda. Cigarros pisados com o pé e os outros continuam o mesmo balancear doido, doido. Gargalhadas enovelam-se no ar, na quentura das noites calmosas da época. Eram muitos e iam em corrida tonta. Estoril, Guincho, sabe-se lá. Frases só deles, do grupo.

“Estupidez absoluta.”

“É pá, falaste ou cuspiste?”

“Ai perdi o Tó. Isto é uma soda. Já sabes a dos gorilas?”

“Tá quieto, daí não levas.”

Escorrega no assento, deixa pender a cabeça e estica o lábio inferior num jeito peculiar.


Nina pusera-o knock-out, pensa, revendo a cena da gare. Não lhe permitira a aproximação, sequer, do mundo diferente a que ela pertencia agora. Arredara-o com a segurança sempre usada quando era preciso escolher.

Assobia baixinho, derivado.

Tinham mantido um flirt por longo tempo. Uns beijos, umas coisas sem importância, no entanto, nunca tomadas a sério. Sempre pensara terminar o curso e voltar para Cabo Verde onde casaria com uma crioula sabe-de-mundo.

Houve um dia, ela entrou-lhe pelo quarto para lhe pedir uma esferográfica. Ele levantara-se de onde estava e fora postar-se atrás da porta, tendo o cuidado de o fechar. Nina ainda inclinada sobre a mesa à procura da esferográfica volta-se, brusca, mostrando uma expressão dura, aliás já conhecida de outras ocasiões.

Ele dera uma gargalhada indo sentar-se.

Fincou os cotovelos sobre a mesa, descansou o queixo sobre as mãos e olhara-a trocista.

“És parva, tinha-lhe dito.”

Nina não lhe respondeu. Todavia, fez-lhe sentir daí a dias. Nunca casaria com ele. Aborrecia-a a ideia de vir a ter filhos de cor.

Estamos quites, pensa ele enquanto a mede dos pés à cabeça.

Continuaram amigos como se nada se tivesse passado. No entanto, o namorico ficou por aí.

Encolhe os ombros.

“Ah, Nina, tás com a mosca da vida nova. Há-de te passar.”

O comboio entra com deslocação rápida de ar no túnel de Caxias. Roda gingão sobre os trilhos para parar, amolengado, na gare. As portas assobiam como lixa, afastando-se para receber uma onda de back-stick, no ar. É uma presença enjoativa.   

“Olha quem ele é!”

O comboio despega com um arranco. Tem vontade de voltar a cabeça para ver os novos companheiros. Riem e falam alto atrás dele. Todavia, conserva-se olhando em frente.

Chatos.

A conversa atabafa-lhe os pensamentos.

“Olhe quem ele é!”

Volta a cabeça e enruga o sobrolho.

“Queres ir connosco?”

Levanta-se e aproxima-se deles.O baixinho dá uma baforada de fumo azul e ela explica e mastiga.

“Vamos prá li. Vamos estar um bocado ao ar livre.”

Os dedos apontam na direcção do vidro descido, para além dele. A bola beije passa de um para o outro maxilar e ela comprime-a entre os dentes fortes. Ela mastiga e arma um sorrio. Os dedos puxam a pastilha elástica segura entre os dentes da frente.

“Os outros estão à nossa espera. Levam sandes e dry gin.”

Foi a loura quem falou agora. Uns olhos azuis, azuis como os de Nina, fitam-no, frios e alheios, porém.

Nina? Qual Nina? A Nina das pândegas, das gargalhadas intempestivas, a dos cigarros fumados a meias, ou aquela, a tal da gare, senhoril, de riso incolor e distante? Tão distante como tudo a separá-los já um do outro.

O baixinho lança outra baforada azul, agarra o saco e põe-no a tiracolo. A loira e a outra ainda a mastigar roçam-no e seguem corredor fora, deixando atrás de si o mesmo odor enjoativo a back-stick.

Ainda a mastigar, a bola beije a desandar na boca, a tentá-lo:

“Se quiseres, estamos ali.”

E faz um gesto de pedir boleia a indicar o sítio para onde vão com os outros. Esperam-nas para além do vidro, para além do sol sobre as casas.

Levam sandes e dry gin.

Translator Notes


Published a year before Cape Verde’s decolonization, Orlanda Amarílis’s “Nina” can be read as a qualified negation of Portuguese colonial discourse and a revelation of the conditions of life for the Cape Verdean diaspora in Portugal. In the post-war period, Portugal’s colonial Lusotropicalist discourse, adapted from the ideas of Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, held that, due to an innate color blindness and a willingness to miscegenate, Portugal had founded not an empire, but rather a worldwide nation united by language, religion, and common feeling. In “Nina” the interpersonal relationship between the black protagonist and his white girlfriend, a reversal of the racialized sexist polarity of Lusotropicalism, reveals the gap between European Portuguese and Africans from Portugal’s colonial possessions. I read the encounter between the woman and the protagonist as a Portugal-set re-working of the famous train scene in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, where the Antillean man is pigeonholed by a child’s fear and a mother’s condescension, a meeting between strangers that denies any French illusion of civic equality. Here the Cape Verdean narrator addresses a woman he thinks of as an equal and is snubbed. Despite a certain socio-economic privilege in relation to Nina, markers of which punctuate the story, he realizes he has no access to “the different world to which she now belonged” because of his color. While Nina has grown up as a colored colonial, the narrator has not been able to reach a parallel “maturity” in metropolitan society. It is noteworthy that, as the protagonist ponders his memories and meets another group of young people who make him a dead-end offer, he is rolling away from the imperial metropolis towards the periphery, in line with the general movement in Amarílis’s collection between Cais-do-Sodré (a central terminus in Lisbon) and Salamansa (a small town in Cape Verde). The staccato diction of the story reinforces its topos and themes – the fleeting moment in the city, the flickering of emotion, impression and memory of the protagonist in response. I have tried to maintain this form, at times slightly simplifying the translation where I felt the English becoming unwieldy. Oddly the most difficult issue in the translation was trying to work out what the author meant by “back-stick,” in English in the original. For a few months the native speakers I asked just shrugged their shoulders, until I mentioned it to my aunt who resolved this lingering doubt by explaining that it referred to hair spray….


Paul Melo e Castro

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