Itaquecacatuba was a name that had always fascinated me.
I had used the name as a subject of amusing conversation with Sergio Paulo our amiable company driver who was so diffident in the early days. I’d got him to teach me the almost unpronounceable name during those early journeys and it had given rise to much mirth These conversations had also formed a bridge between us, he the skilled Brazilian linguist and me The Group Chairman, a Gringo with the usual Anglo Saxon attribute of being linguistically inept.
Today was a bit unusual in that I’d wrapped up early and Sergio Paulo and I were making our way from Mogis to Guarhulios Airport where I was destined to spend three or more hours in the desperately drab DeVille Hotel before boarding my flight to London.
It was hot and humid I remember, and on a complete whim, I said to Sergio;
“Let’s drop into Itaquecacatuba, and have a beer; – at last, all will be revealed, the town behind the name.” I laughed.
“Meesterre Jamez, it is not so interesting, the old village is no more there, only small, and the new town ees like all new towns”
“Oh come on it’s so seldom I have time to spare, you can show me the sights.”
“Tout a bon”
He turned off the turn pike where the sign “ITAQUECACATUBA” loomed large, I was childishly curious. The same I don’t think could be said of Sergio who clearly thought I was crazy. Then as if to add insult to injury I directed my incredulous driver off the main road towards what I assumed to be the old Indian village.
It seemed that Sergio’s advice had been right. There was nothing to see, for the dusty road wove its way into a dilapidated strung out village.
“Let’s stop for a beer, I’m thirsty then we can turn round,” I apologised, as only a recalcitrant Chairman can. “Any little bar will do” I continued, trying to make the whole episode matter of fact.
“Tout a bon,” he said as he pulled the car onto a dusty shoulder of the road at what appeared to be a shack that sold beer. All that the bar consisted of was a broken down shack with a precarious corrugated and rusted roof. There were old half oil barrels that had been converted into uncomfortable and exceedingly dirty chairs, a counter advertising brands long dead, and a rusting chest refrigerator that wheezed and gurgled under the makeshift bar top.
“This OK?” Sergio’s victory clearly assured.
“Perfectly, dear boy” I replied, determined to enjoy this short exercise in local slumming. I tried to ignore the stink of poverty that pervaded the place, the intrusive smell of sewage. I walked with what assured gait I could muster. In the ghastly bar for the first time I noticed the children playing in the fetid gutter. They seemed happy enough, though God only new why? They had no toys, no football, not even shoes on their grubby skinny feet. Around where we stood saw the ramshackle hovels that shambled up the hillside, and the dusty roadside homes that had seen better days
The proprietress of the establishment appeared; she had the most lived in face that I had ever seen. She could have been anywhere from forty to ninety. Oh, this lady had lived a life of hardship that screamed from every wrinkle, each swollen eye bag and from her deformed claw like hands. Her bloodshot eyes darted from me and Sergio with an animal nervous energy that signalled both fear and shyness.
I was getting into the shyness thing myself, and my usual confidence melted away. I wished fervently that Sergio would order our drink and we could be off. For once Sergio also seemed ill at ease; almost ignoring me. That he was not attentive to me struck me as odd, not because I felt he should be, but he had always been so.
The arrival of our swanky limousine had become something of a cause celebre and the few children became; a crowd, the crowd became a multitude. Hordes of urchins soon swamped us and we were hedged into the tiny tacky bar, the beer and coke had hardly been delivered before we were submerged in a cacophonous din of gabbling children. It was hard to make oneself heard, and I bellowed to Sergio;
“Come on let’s drink up and get out of here.” I swigged my beer, despite being precariously balanced on my steel drum armchair, trying to ignore the press of smelly children. It was impossible, they were every where, milling round the car. Dirty hands pestered and scurried like so many insects over my clothing, some invaded the inside of my pockets. It became a physical struggle to keep them at bay. Some of the children seemed intent on touching my European white hair. Though I tried to shoo them away with quite a physical rebuttal, it made no difference; their pawing continued.
“Let’s pay and get out of here”
“Si Senor,” Sergio struggled to the car, fighting his way through the mob of clawing clamouring mob. As he reached the driver’s door and as I waited at the passenger side there seemed an unnecessary and aggravating delay,
“For Christ’s sake open the bloody door, will you”
I looked across and saw Sergio stand rooted to the spot, gasping for air. Then he collapsed and fell from my sight. As he fell he gasped something that I neither properly heard nor understood, I assume it was in Portuguese. There was something shocking in his collapse. I didn’t quite understand what was happening; I knew that something was terribly wrong. I stood there for a second amid the frantic scrimmaging of the urchins, many of whom seemed to have pounced on the fallen driver.
“Sergio?” “Sergio!” I fought my way round the car to find that Sergio was lying flat on his back, he’d been rolled over by the mob. Instantly I knew; he was dead.
Death comes as it will, but it is something of a shock when a companion dies so suddenly in a place so alien. Death was sad. Death was shocking, but in this case it was unbelievably inconvenient.
I don’t mean inconvenient in a selfish way, I mean it was so sudden and in such strange circumstances. I felt I had been abandoned in an alien world. I felt sorrow, panic, loneliness and bewilderment. Time stood still in those frantic moments as I recognised that I was in another world, where my credentials of rank and status meant nothing. Sergio had abandoned me to the urchins of Itaquecacatuba.
I searched his body hopelessly for signs of life. The army of urchins scrummed around me almost leaping on my back as I tried frantically to revive the dead driver.
I had known Paulo Sergio for some years as the amiable reliable bi-lingual head of security who had been steadfast and kind to me over the years. Now in a flash I knew how much I didn’t know about him, and was struck by the even more crushing realisation, how much I had depended on him.
He had been shy at first and diffident as becomes a man of his status when driving and safeguarding the Chairman. However with time we had become comfortable with one another and yet the jests such as Itaquecacatuba were as intimate as we ever got. He was simply always there; whether picking me up at all hours from the airport or taking me home to my hotel after many exhausting nights entertaining customers in the City. I knew that he had been with the company for twenty three years, he had a wife and grown children and lived in the middle of that mystery known as Sao Paulo, along with twenty two million others.
There was no time to be sad. The young thugs had quickly grasped the situation and were rifling the dead man’s pockets. It was obscene, I screamed a hollow scream but it made no difference, if anything it seemed to excite the juvenile mob to higher levels of hysteria.
“Politzie, Politzie” I cried, entirely in vain. The old crone from the bar was now shrieking with alarm. In the bedlam I shouted and waved my arms at the parasitic mob, in desperation appealing to the bar lady. She fled.
I tried to open the Mercedes door but it was locked, I searched frantically for the keys but could not find them. I became more emphatic, more violent in my attempts to keep the mob at bay and in my ever more desperate search for the keys. The keys were not in Sergio’s pockets nor on the road beside him. They were gone. The mobile phone lay temptingly on the front seat of the car, I thought of breaking the armoured glass and then remembered what armoured meant.
I was filthy, sweat poured into my bespectacled eyes, my shirt stuck to my pumping chest, The pocket of my formerly pristine jacket was torn and my watch was no longer on my wrist. The crowd was thinning; the spoils had been won.
It was then I noticed that a car had stopped and a man was remonstrating with the mob leaders, the crowd disappeared as quickly as it had formed. Just a few haunted starving faces stared with curiosity at the dead Paulo Sergio. His staring face already the kingdom of a thousand flies.
The man approached. He was a big man, with thick black hair dressed in jeans and a woollen lumberjack’s shirt that seemed improbable in the wretched heat. I leaned on the car neither afraid nor expectant.
“Senor” – “English” I pointed rather stupidly at myself, and then turned my accusing index finger to the prone body of my former friend, “Dead” I said, “Muerto” that I thought was Portuguese for ‘dead’.
I beckoned to him to come and see the hapless body baking in the sun. He approached tentatively, eying the scene;
“No Englische”. My heart sank, the man turned walked briskly to his battered Volkswagen.
“Wait, wait, Politzie” I cried, obviously unwisely. He looked away and gunned his car away down the dusty road, disappearing like a tornado.
‘To be lonely’ was a state I thought I knew, but until then I did not. I stood on the roadside, with just a handful of urchins near by. They sat quietly eying the stranger who’d brought death and excitement.
Cars passed the drivers swept past in an unseeing cloud of dust. I searched the bar for a telephone but there was none. My approaches to the battered houses and hovels drew only closed doors and twitching curtains. Silence was my only companion. I was desolate.
There was nowhere that could help that I could remember on the route that had brought us here, so I started walking onwards towards the old town. Before I started on my way; poor old Sergio’s body was already beginning to swell in the sweltering heat.
I set out timorously on my walk to I knew not where, but I couldn’t just sit alongside my dead companion forever. I trudged west. The sun was already beginning to move towards the evening horizon, blinding my view as I walked. Over the crest of a small rise only half a mile from the scene of our distress I came upon a Gas Station; a run down rusting garage at the road side. The only thing that convinced me that it was indeed a gas station was the two ancient pumps bearing the fading logo ‘Petrobraz’. Inside the hovel that I assumed was the office – workshop, there stood yet another aberration, Methuselah must have been a boy when this man was born, he resembled a gnome and a malnutritioned one at that.
“Por favor Senor” I implored “telephono Politzie, accidente, amigo es muerto!”
It was apparent that my Portuguese left something to be desired for the wiry old man gazed at me as one would at any dishevelled lunatic speaking gibberish. I tried again.
“Amigo, por favour telephone” I held up my thumb and little finger giving a third rate impression of a telephone. I continued my pantomime of panic; “Amigo es muerto.” I issued a strangled cry, this time clutching my own throat. “Telephono por favour.”
“Si” said the gnome, retreating his back to the grimy wall, pointing to a broken glass booth.
I picked up the filthy phone and could hear nothing not even a hopeful buzz. I listened some more for the dialling tone; there was none.
“No tone, no fucking tone,… telephone es muerto.” The wizened gnome assumed a look of absolute panic convinced that the end of his lengthy life was at hand.
“Telephone no working, no bloody tone.” I stared remonstrating with the telephone as any lunatic would. I stared at the Portuguese instructions and, through the blackness of my frustrated rage, I eventually saw the ten cent sign.
“Ten cent, ten cents,” I roared at the frantic keeper of the pumps; advancing as I did with my palm extended. He crossed himself opened the till and offered me the total contents. He stood back shaking with fear. I grabbed a handful of change and rummaged through it for a ten cent piece. At last the phone was activated.
I rang 911, a man answered in Portuguese, I bellowed; “Itaquecacatuba, man is dead, help.” There was a silence, “English, por favor English no Portuguese” I babbled some more. The Station Manager was staring at me from behind his counter completely uncomprehending.. I could hear a conference on the subdued echoes of the emergency telephone centre. I was at least still connected but time seemed to hang resolutely in suspense.
“Allo, can i ‘elp” came a distant voice. The relief was as if the sun had been cooled, as if I was clean, as if all was well, help was at hand. I explained at tortured length what had happened with the reluctant help of the station gnome. I had to drag him to the phone as gently as I could, He babbled in an Indian dialect and crossed himself several times before he could be persuaded that I had no homicidal intent. He was able to converse in Portuguese with the police; hopefully pin pointing my geographical position, and not reporting the violent robbery of the ten cent piece. I had my suspicions.
Help was at hand, the Manager seemed now to understand the problems and after a garbled discussion between us of half Portuguese, mixed with pidgin gobbledegook, he called for his wife. An ugly. toothless and filthily dressed old woman, reluctantly emerged to man the pumps. The petrol station man and I made our weary silent way back up the dusty road to the car and the sad sight of the late Sergio Garcia, old company servant and all round good egg.
Half way back to the car I began to think of what to do next. Should I phone the company Headquarters in Sao Paulo or perhaps the factory in Mogis des Crozes? There’d be no one there now. I was suddenly exhausted, and hoped upon hope that the police and ambulance would come without delay.
Indeed they did not. They arrived, or rather the police arrived some two hours later, by which time and with the reluctant help of Jose the gas station manager we had gingerly dragged the body of Paulo Sergio out of the road.
The crone bar owner had returned and resisted fiercely the positioning of the rotund dead body into the environs of her meagre premises. I assumed she thought it was bad for business although the local populace seemed nowhere in sight, hidden in the hovels of the ramshackle favella. She disappeared again and this time reappeared after a moment with a huge and sinister man who bore more than a passing resemblance to Frankenstein’s beast. True he had no bolts in his neck, but surmounting his huge frame was the most horribly scarred and lined face. He entered into a deep conversation with Jose, their whispering was punctuated with gesticulations over the now odoriferous corpse.
It was at this time I thought it appropriate to trust the mighty dollar and so ameliorate these simple souls whose day had been so sorely interrupted by my whim to visit Itaquecacatuba.
My next surprise was to find that my wallet was gone as was my passport and any other means of identification. I could not for the life of me remember if my documents were in the car in my brief case or had been in my jacket. Panic began to rise as I imagined all sorts of horrors of being stranded in this God forsaken place without a cent, but worse without my passport and tickets home.
It was six o’ clock by the plastic clock that displayed a black Madonna and child. We had been in Itaquecacatuba for over three hours. Poor Paulo Sergio began to exude odours that would have embarrassed him in life. Then out of the east there was a hee hoe hee hor as a police car raced passed in a cloud of dust. We waved frantically for them to stop. They ignored us and went on; thankfully only as far as the gas station. Jose set off in his shambling wheezing gait to bring them back, I was afraid that perhaps another untimely exit was at hand. The car, its siren hee hawing its blue light flashing, made a spectacular turn in the road and raced the 800 yards back to us. It screeched to a halt in front of the company car. No one moved. I stood or more accurately leaned on the Mercedes, dazed and apprehensive, it seemed an age before the car doors opened and two uniformed and heavily armed officers emerged.
“English” I begged in fierce hope.
“Si Senor” said one; he was fat, wide, and powerful. He wore sun glasses that obscured his eyes completely. “Well, Officer” I began,
“Si Senor” he replied walking straight past me and addressed the Frankenstein’s apostle in Portuguese.
“Officer, please” I whined, feeling much like an ignored child. “Si Senor” he said not once looking at me, he continued a lengthy conversation with the bar owner.
The other policeman had cursorily examined the corpse, and stood back staring at me from behind an identical pair of opaque sun glasses. I saw myself shifting uneasily in the reflection of their mirror like lenses.
The nightmare continued, neither police officer seemed to want to speak to me. They had lengthy conversations with Frankenstein’s associate, Jose the Petrol station guy, and then with the lady who ran the bar. Much of the conversations were whispered, all were in Portuguese and all were entirely incomprehensible to me. My interventions were all greeted with the same dismissive; “Si Senor.” There seemed to be a barrier that the police wanted to sustain. What was it? Xenophobia! Was I suspected of foul play? Surely these guys spoke English?
Another half hour passed, I noted with resigned horror that I was not going to make the BA flight out of Guarhulios, the realisation brought me back to reality with a bump. I could no longer just sit there letting things happen. “Come on you berk do something, take control!”
I tapped the fat policeman on the shoulder; he turned in a flash and glared at me, brushing his shoulder where I had dared to touch him. He swore in Portuguese, I could almost feel his eyes burn from behind his eye shields. He stood hands on hip one perilously close to his revolver; he glared and then turned away and continued his conversation with the bar lady. I turned to the subordinate policeman, nervous but determined to gain some sort of initiative.
“Senor” I stammered, my voice dry and hoarse, “por favor, I think we should ring the Company, la compania ‘Pordometal”.
He nodded. “Papers por favour.” His hand expectantly extended; his other hand resting lazily on his holstered gun.
My mouth if it was dry before, now became a sandpaper orifice filled with glue. I was unable to say anything, I just pointed at the car.
The police partners went into a huddle. Eventually the senior man beckoned to me and spoke in Portuguese, “Non Portuguese, no Portuguese, Englisch!” I protested in my best mid European accent.
“Si” Fatso replied, “Si, me no Englische”. He swaggered past and he and his side kick began to work on the car and in a matter of a few moments the door sprung open. From there it was easy to open the trunk, locate my briefcase, and find that God is good and that my passport and airline tickets were there.
I pointed to the mobile phone and dialled the short code for my company in Sao Paulo. I was relieved after some further chaotic conversation with the security people that Harry D’Oliviera my local Managing Director was contacted. Soon the policeman was nodding on the phone to Harry. The fat thug changed from the grotesque brute to a Fairy Godfather in an instant.
“Si Senor” he positively beamed a good natured grin, “Si Senor” Wipe your bottom senor, kiss your arse Senor, it was clear that my situation was changed. I was offered a seat with a flourish and a Coca-Cola never tasted so good.
The sun had set; Sergio Paulo’s wreaking corpse was once more dragged to a place away from our presence and the range of our nostrils. Then some four hours after Sergio’s untimely passing, the ambulance, more accurately the ‘meat wagon’ turned up and dear old Paulo Sergio was unceremoniously dumped into the back and driven to I knew not where.
Fatso now all politeness and positively unctuous; drove me in the police car back to the Deville Hotel. Harry was there to meet us. During the drive I dwelt on the vagaries of status, had I been an ordinary tourist….. well I wasn’t , I was a big shot and when I’d recovered my poise I would kick arse and take names. Nobody but nobody should have to endure what I’d been through. But not for now, I had never felt so drained, yet I still felt for Paulo Sergio. I grieved for this man who I had never really known, I fretted for his family and I felt how pathetic I had been. Not the chairman of the corporation, but a lost soul in an alien place.
Harry was all sweetness and full of genuine concern. Was I all right? Calls would be made to London to explain my delay. Did I require a doctor? He demanded and got me the best suite in the Hotel. I slipped back into big shot mode and in no time was tucking into a rare pecanja washed down with the finest wine. True, I dwelt on the personal message that I penned to the family of the late and much lamented Paulo Sergio, whose corpse was in one of the hundreds of morgues in metropolitan Sao Paulo. I even enquired about the funeral. Should I stay and make an appearance?
Soon the faxes started flowing into my suite. My first class seat was booked for tomorrow night, I’d have another day to spare. The shareholders’ meeting was in ten days time, it would be great opportunity to write up some notes, I worked late into the night. Could I make time to stagger into the innards of Sao Paulo to pay my compliments to the family of Paulo Sergio; well that would depend …. The shareholders’ meeting needs my full attention. After all I’d idled away a half day. The visit to Itaquecacatuba? Perhaps, not my best executive decision!
© Anthony James 2018