Flavio had died.
The day before dying, when he had finally accepted out loud that his time was almost up, he had requested a promise from me. I was to scatter part of his cremated remains in his hometown, Sao Manuel, Brazil. There was a church garden there he had always enjoyed sitting in as a child. Then again later he found himself in that same spot, seeking quiet during his annual visits home to his mother and family. He was a strong believer in completing the circle of life, and this would be his final trip home.
The cremated remains were weird, more gravel than ash. Like those small stones that find their way into your shoes. Abrasive. The crematorium passed them on to me in a discreet brown box, a white printed label showing Flavio’s initials and the cremation date on the side.
In the stillness of an empty house I handled them solemnly. A wisp of dust rose when I raised the lid. Like my thoughts, these minute particles would forever be settling and drifting, never really still.
On arriving in Sao Paulo the first thing to hit you is the heat, like opening an oven door with your face too close. The shirt began to stick to my back and the wait for my bag to appear inside the reclaim hall was worrying. Eventually it found me.
Dodging a mob of panhandlers, I reached the outside terminal. Fresh air, or sort of. Dust and car fumes.
Two friends, Annie and Erica, were due to collect me. Annie I knew well. She was one of Flavio’s closest friends and had lived with us in Kent at various points over the years. She was a good person and I liked her. Erica I had not met, but knew from Flavio’s stories. The three of us would drive to Sao Manuel, the girls acting as translators and protectors.
An odd trio. We would never all have been together and heading to his home-town if he had not died. His life there was not something he had wanted to share with any of us.
The car rules in Brazil. The drive would be around seven hours, almost two of which would just be getting out of the city and toward the long straight highway west. Our car was tiny and red.
We left behind the affluent high-rise confusion of concrete, glass and metal. The capital’s banks, businesses, and swish apartments all sat uneasily, threatened by an imposing mishmash of favelas seemingly ready to tumble down the hillsides and contaminate them. Two cities.
Once away from the noise, the scenery changed. We were on an apparently endless and gently rolling carpet of concrete travelling through miles upon miles of green fields. It was all coffee plantations, broken only by the occasional oversize billboard advertising chocolate or cigarettes. Nothing healthy. Vast unhindered swaths of green and brown panning either side to the horizon, meeting an equal mass of pale blue sky. It was beautiful.
Sometimes I would notice people working in the fields or a single tractor plodding along, almost in slow motion, but mainly it was empty. There were few animals to be seen in the fields, but every now and again we would pass a dog or cat lying flattened on the road, a mangled body of fur and bone being picked over by jostling black ravens and colored magpies.
Ahead of us the road. Always the road. Traffic was light. A lorry loaded up with fruits would sometimes roar past and shake our small car, causing a brief moment of nervousness. Occasionally we would rattle by a worn mule straining to heave an overloaded cart. These were always driven by old men in baseball caps, features browned by years of relentless sun and work.
We would also pass lone figures. Barely human, dressed roughly, tattered t-shirt and shorts, no shoes, pushing their makeshift handbarrows through the heat, heaped with plastic bottles or soda cans on their way to who knows where to claim a few cents.
We rarely passed any houses and the few towns I saw were mere villages, thrown up haphazardly close to a service station or tollgate areas, metal, plastic sheeting, and planks taking root like seedlings. Struggling to get established.
Sad Stop Cafe
After four hours of solid driving we pulled in at a rest stop. It was good to stand up. Really good. I had always thought of travelling as freedom but in fact it is all about confinement, either on a plane or in a car, in a motel room or a mind. Never completely free.
I had noticed a handful of prostitutes loitering around the entrance. A smudge of colour and flesh. Thin and tired. Bird-like, as though they had just flapped in.
Inside, Erica and Annie rushed to the washroom. I sat by an artificial pond in the reception area. Piped music, tacky pop a notch too loud, and the pond, over flourished with plastic plants and sad, gasping fish, failed to create the tranquil atmosphere it surely aimed for. Worse than melancholy.
I remember once Flavio had returned happy from Brazil with a pint glass filled almost to the brim with a fiery red earth. He had wrapped the glass in rolls of cellophane and somehow got it back to the UK intact and through customs.
A red baked by the sun and ground by time. The kind of color only nature can master. It was to remind him of home, he said.
Sao Manuel was exactly the color of that earth.
We searched for the street where Vera, Flavio’s mother, lived. As we quietly got lost amid the grid of lanes and turnings the route became a puzzle of dust and tracks. What green there was had been brought here and planted optimistically, geraniums and a few laburnums, testament to nature’s tenacity. There was little grass to be seen except in the church gardens. Palm trees and a kind of resilient fern flourished though, species that had shown their propensity for survival centuries ago.
We passed the church and the bench where Flavio had sat so many times. I stole a glance from the window, almost afraid to look for fear of seeing him there.
At last we pulled alongside the house. Like all the others roundabout, it was a single story, roughly plastered square block. It was odd to think that this was where Flavio had been born, where he had grown up, left for school each day, and eventually left for Europe. Erica asked me if I was alright. Was I ready?
Vera came out. Tears flowed. Hugs were exchanged. She had aged since we had last met, that day miles from here on a snowy February morning.
She led the three of us indoors. We all felt uneasy arriving in this little faraway town, sitting on chairs Flavio had sat on, looking out at views he had seen. We were straying into his memories and making our own.
I was nervous of meeting Paulo and William, Flavios’s two brothers, one younger, one older. It was one of my main anxieties when I had thought about this journey. I was not their brother. I was a stranger. It was usually Flavio who returned home to Sao Manual for this welcome meal.
The two men turned out to be exactly as he had described. Paulo, the older sibling, was big, looking older than his years but with sparkling eyes buried deep in a squashed face. He reminded me a little of my own estranged brother, coarse and loud. When he spoke, he shouted. He was a rough character, but he was friendly. Once hellos had been said, he paid little attention to me other than shouting my name occasionally from across the table or throwing another chunk of meat on my plate as if he were feeding a dog.
William was more fragile. I could tell he had been affected by the events of the last year and now again by my presence here. He shook hands loosely, reluctantly, unsure. He was similar in build and appearance to Flavio. Not as slim, but with the same handsome face and thoughtful brown eyes. He looked uncomfortable. Spoke little.
Often I would catch him gazing at me, sizing me up, trying to see who I was.
Paulo was a survivor. He’d be fine in time. While I was certain that he was sad about Flavio, I was equally sure he was able to cope and had in fact already moved on much further than anyone else at the table. William had not. He carried sadness, was weighed down by it. We tried to gauge each other’s character. I was curious to know what conclusions he had made about me and who I was, but since Flavio’s death I had been in a self-protective mode, getting through each day one at a time, with no emotional or physical strength for anyone else. Some selfish mechanism had gone into overdrive to get my physical shape through this period and out the other side.
All of us were in our own space, awkwardly circling around each other trying to make sense out of what had happened and where it would end.
I liked both men.
My time in Sao Manuel was deliberately short.
Sunday evening, the night before leaving, a memorial service was held. The chapel was small. Like everything in the town, it was concrete and whitewashed. The inside offered a welcome coolness. I arrived late, reluctant to take part, and stood at the back.
It was crowded, the music loud and the singing enthusiastic. Vera was near the front, singing. Paulo and William, like me, loitered at the back. Quiet. Paulo left after just a few moments, probably for a smoke. William continued his visual interrogation of me.
At the front was a simple concrete altar set up with candles and flowers. On the floor at the front were the ashes.
The service over, Vera came out to find me and took my arm. We walked the few metres or so around the side of the church to the garden where we would scatter the ashes.
We had already chosen a place next to a small fern to scatter them. It seemed a good spot, tidy, likely to remain untouched by gardeners or animals. About twenty people joined us. The town’s spinsters and widows came and spoke to Vera, sharing hugs and support. Paulo and William hung back from the main group. They never strayed far from each other. I was unsure if they would take part; they seemed agitated. Annie and Erica moved close to me. Our journey here was coming to a conclusion.
Everyone held hands in semi-circle while Vera led a prayer. I looked around at all the faces. The brothers had come forward, Paulo looking oddly out of place, holding hands with his brother to his right and an old lady on his left. He kept his cigarette in his lips. I sort of admired him. William was hollow. His young son, Yuri, clung to his leg. I was unsure who was supporting whom.
I heard Vera say my name during her speech, but that was the only thing I heard. She stepped forward and took a handful of the ashes. Crying, she scattered them around the base of the fern. She beckoned me forward. I took a handful, still perplexed by their coarseness. I stayed still for a moment, ashes in hand.
I turned. Paulo had left the group and was standing by his truck. Erica signaled for William to come forward, but grief anchored him to the spot. Tears reddened his face. His son came forward and took a fistful of the ash letting it trickle through his tiny fingers gently.
The box was empty. The sun was low. The act over.
William raised a hand and waved to me. I waved back, but he had already turned and was going toward his brother and the waiting truck.
Tomorrow I would be heading home.
The dawn air was cool. It had that edge of a summer morning back home before the heat of the day had started. The sky hung huge. No clouds. The palm fronds of the trees barely moved. Occasionally the stillness would be shaken by a flock of noisy parakeets jostling in the trees. Anxious, they never settled for long.
The redness of Sao Manuel had a more russet tone in the early light, a kind of parched translucence that reflected on my palm as I bent down to touch it. It no longer felt so strange to be here. I did not feel quite the intruder I had a few days earlier. It was Flavio’s town, his family, and his past, but he was part of my life and now these people and this town had become part of it too, if only for a moment. I let some earth fall through my fingers. It was true that everything returned back to where it had come from, or at least a part of it did.
I roused from my daydreams. An old man passed by on a bike. Slowly. A rangy brindled cur following behind, its long tongue hanging. The man waved. I waved back.
High above, impossibly high, meeting the morning, a plane moved across the sky, a sliver of metal reflected by the sun, curving and then disappearing into the distance.