The girl with the ginger tresses

I was nine and it was my first day of what was called preparatory school (the fifth year of school).

It was all very different from the private, small, primary school I had been to in the last four years. This was a huge state school, as schools in the years before the 1974 revolution were segregated.

I had managed to find my way to my classroom and there I was, sitting quietly, waiting for the teacher to arrive. I knew absolutely no one so I was just looking around and trying to absorb my new reality.

And then I saw a red-haired girl come in. She had two tresses and many freckles – she looked foreign, in fact – and she must have been very popular as several girls were calling her:”Luisa, Luisa!” She smiled, talked to them and then sat down, as the teacher was coming in.

She was really nice and soon we became friends. We had quite a few things in common, one of which was the fact that we both had our origins in Madeira Island – her father and my great-grandparents (and actually my grandfather who, even if he had been born in Mozambique, had spent his childhood over there). But this was just a coincidence, as we really enjoyed talking to each other, playing together with our Barbie dolls, etc.

She used to come to see me on weekends and we’d spend a lot of time in the swimming-pool. Soon she was bringing her younger brother Jorge with her. He was great fun and only a year younger than us so he also became a good friend. Moreover, as we had all seen the movie “El Cid” – that told the story of the most famous and bravest of Castilian knights, Rodrigo Dias de Bivar, who had lived in the 11th century- and had loved it, we liked to recall the movie’s plot and scenes, and in fact we took to impersonating the characters: El Cid, played by Charlton Heston, was Jorge, of course (as the only boy); he decreed I was Jimena, his ladylove (played by a beautiful Sophia Loren); and Luisa was a young girl that was part of the court. We decreed the swimming pool was the kingdom of Castile and Bivar, the native city of our hero, was at the pool bottom, so when we wanted to “go to Bivar” we had to dive underwater. We lived this story in such an intense way that we really took to calling Jorge Rodrigo, and for many years my family kept calling him as such!

What fun we had! Sometimes I would go over to Luisa’s apartment for the weekend and we’d talk and listen to music for hours, her favourite song being “I’d love you to want me” by Lobo – she just listened to it all the time! And I really liked her parents – they  were incredible and very welcoming and one could see they were a very happy and close-knit family. She had a younger sister, Cristina, but as she was several years younger than we were we didn’t pay her much attention.

When I had hepatitis and had to stay in bed for three months Luisa kept me a lot of company until one day my dog Horus, who was very old and losing his sight, must have mistaken her for a stranger and bit her in the leg! Apparently it was very painful and it took a long time to heal and to this day when we are together she shows her scar and says “being a dedicated friend to you almost cost me my leg…” and we laugh and remember the good old times!

Then we had to leave Mozambique – she went to Madeira where they still had the family house and I came to Lisbon. We always kept in touch, and of course I wrote much more than her as unlike me she was not really keen on writing. Then destiny again brought us together as my family and I began going to Madeira every year in August for our holidays, and there we could spend a lot of time with each other. We continued our friendship through our teens, always having so much in common and always loving to be with each other and having fun together. By this time, of course, long gone were her tresses and my ponytails…

When she went to university she had to leave Madeira, as there were no universities there. She went to study in Coimbra, the oldest and most traditional academic city in Portugal, to stay with her grandparents on her mother’s side, and now that she was nearer she often came to spend weekends in Lisbon with me. We’d spend hours talking about our lives, our loves, clothes and accessories…things we still talk about when we are together.

We have so many stories to tell…from the “famous” ball of the Naval School to each unforgettable New Year’s Eve in Madeira, from animated evenings playing cards or other games with her father or listening to his ever interesting stories; from long summer days swimming in the beautiful dark blue sea of Madeira to tours of the mountains and cosy dinners at typical restaurants…or just spending time together with her family in that unique warm environment that only her parents managed to create…how I first envied her her family and then, no more, because they made me feel I was one of them and in fact I was…and ever since I have regarded her as part of my own family too, someone who has always been in my life – and even if we live far apart and cannot see each other as much as we would like to, we are always somewhat close, and it only takes one call and listening to each other’s voice to know that nothing will ever change between us, we have a friendship of a lifetime that will always be there.

I always loved her parents but there was a very special connection with her father. I always kept in touch with him and wrote to him telling me my news. She knew that when one day she suddenly called me and told me he was in hospital, very ill. I could not believe my ears – he was only sixty-nine and had always been so strong, even if he had been a diabetic for many years. But as with everything, he took his disease with elegance, telling jokes about it even when he had to inject himself with insulin. A few days after, just before Christmas, she called and said he had passed away, and I felt an immense sadness. I remember having to hide my tears from my boys who were still small and were excitingly preparing for Christmas. There was no chance for me to go to his funeral but the first time I went to Madeira after that she took me to the cemetery and there, by his grave, I silently told him how much he had meant to me and how much I missed him. I still do, very much, and I always remember him coming down the stairs of their house, so elegant in his black tie, ready for a night out with his wife, a couple “in love forever” as Frank Sinatra sang.

When she told me her parents had just moved house two weeks before his death I understood: he had died of a broken heart, leaving his old family house had been too much for him.

I remember when she started going out with Álvaro, who would become her husband: very soon she knew he was special. And he was and has been, very special in her life. Following her parents’ example, I see them, who have been married for almost thirty years sitting on the couch holding hands, and one can clearly see they love each other very much. They may have had their differences – what couple doesn’t have them – but I have always seen them happy with each other and in the end that’s what really matters.

And then she had her children. First Carolina and then António, who are now grown up and have flown from home, she living in Porto with her boyfriend and him in London, pursuing his career. I remember visiting her when Carolina was born, when she and Álvaro were living in a house so tiny that I could not believe how they managed. But then they moved to a nice apartment and finally to the beautiful house where they live now, a house where I feel as if I were on a boat, as from the windows one can only see the beautiful sea, and the Desertas islands in the distance.

….

And this and many other things I suppose, I told her in the speech I made on her 50th birthday and 25th wedding anniversary. Luisa and Álvaro organised a big celebration in Funchal and of course I was there with Nuno. We stayed with them for a long weekend in the beginning of August and I have incredible memories of those days when again we could spend time together and talk about our things. She had asked me to say something, as her oldest friend – and so I did. And I’m sure everyone understood how deep is our friendship, as I spoke about our stories together and, inevitably, about her dear father, such a special human being we were so privileged to have in our lives.

A few months after here she was, in my 50th birthday celebration and she also made a speech, as my oldest friend.

As  I write this a terrible truth has dawned on me: I have just missed her birthday! I don’t know what has happened this year, I haven’t been myself with all the work, the exams of my son Pedro, and so many other things that I completely forgot to call her! Unforgivable!

I have just hung up the phone. I have excused myself, and then of course we talked and talked. As always, we told each other the latest news. I told her I was writing about her, she said she’ll be coming to Porto in late July, I said I’m going to try to go there so that we may see each other…and then I remembered that next year there will certainly be a very good cause for a celebration – it will be her 30th wedding anniversary. And I told her that, with a big or small celebration, I will be there for another memorable occasion. Because, in addition to birthdays, anniversaries, the future weddings of our children and christening of our grandchildren to be, or whatever reasons we have to celebrate, I know there will be something else to be thankful for – the unique, precious, and so very special friendship of someone I will always see as she was when I had my first glimpse of her – the girl with the ginger tresses.