Those summer holidays of 83 in Madeira were the strangest of them all. I suppose we could say we were obsessed with the esoteric and the occult.
On the first of August I arrived, to stay for about 10 days at Luisa’s house. After that my family would come and I would join them at the Savoy.
Luisa’s house was a large, old – from the late 19th century – house with the typical Madeira architecture: yellow walls and green shutters. It had a quite wild garden, and inside there were several bedrooms, living rooms, a large and very old fashioned kitchen and lots of dark corners. Ah, and the inevitable and mysterious attic, of course!
The house was always full of friends, both of Luisa’s and her brother Jorge’s: I was the first to arrive and a few days later another friend of Luisa’s, Lídia, arrived. As I was staying in Luisa’s room – as usual – Lídia stayed in another room, that I would later learn was called “The ghost’s room” (no one knew exactly why, but the name had been there for a long time).
We always talked a lot during dinner and especially after dinner, as Luisa’s parents, whom I called Uncle and Auntie (it’s very usual in Portugal to call your friend’s parents as such) Jorge and Sara, had a young spirit and loved to talk to us young people. We also liked them a lot. Auntie Sara was a nice lady and Uncle Jorge was a great sport, he told the most amazing stories and loved to play cards and all sorts of household games, such as imitations, etc…
I can’t remember why but soon our talks were drifting to esoteric themes. We started talking about strange phenomena, such as ghost appearances in old houses – a creepy subject considering we were in one. Jorge’s (jr.) friend who was staying, Zé, maybe because he was beginning to feel uncomfortable, suddenly said:
“Well, that’s all nonsense! I only believe in what I can see!”
Uncle Jorge looked at him with a mischievous – albeit sad- look, and he said:
“You know, Zé, when I was about your age I used to say exactly the same. But then something happened and I changed my opinion”.
“What was it, Uncle? You are making us all curious” – I said. “Please tell us”, and I sat down comfortably, as I knew Uncle Jorge was a great storyteller.
“Well – he said – when I was young I had a younger brother – we were four, two girls and two boys. My brother very much liked to dive, and as you know there are beautiful marine landscapes in Madeira. Sometimes I would go with him but more often he went diving with his friends. One terrible day he went diving and when all his friends gathered in the surface he was not there. They dived again to look for him and could not find him. As you know the sea bottom in Madeira is very dark because of the rocks, and when it started to grow dark they could not see any more so they gave up the search. They notified the maritime authorities and came home to tell us he had disappeared”.
At this point we were almost breathless, listening to such a tragic story. I had no idea! And Uncle Jorge went on – and one could see he was deeply upset, even so many years after:
“We were all in shock – my mother most of all. She said she had a bad feeling about her son. No one slept that night and searches were resumed on the following days, but nothing came out of it! My brother was nowhere to be found and after a few days and weeks had passed we began to accept the terrible truth – that he was dead, and that most probably his body was lost to the sea” – he paused, only to continue his sad, tragic tale: “My mother would not rest until she found out what had happened to him, so in the depth of her despair one day she did the unthinkable – she invited a psychic to come to our house to do a séance and try to discover what had happened to my brother. My father absolutely refused to have anything to do with that and left, but both I and my sisters decided to stay and support our mother, even if we were convinced this would be a waste of time – we didn’t believe in such things”.
By now we were entranced, drinking every word of Uncle Jorge’s. He continued:
“We all sat around a table – in fact it was pretty much what you see in the movies. She started conjuring the spirits to help her find what had happened to my brother, and in fact calling him, asking him to tell her what had happened to him. She told him his mother was in great pain and needed to know the truth about his disappearance. After a certain time – when she seemed in a trance – she told us he was well, that he was sorry for our grief, and that he had told her where he had drowned and where his body could be found.”
Sadly, he looked at our astonished faces and went on: “When the séance was finished, we told our mother this was complete nonsense and that we hoped she would forget about the psychic’s words. But, on the contrary, she seemed to have a new resolve, and she firmly told us that she would ask our father to send divers to that particular place as she was convinced my brother’s body would be found there”.
“And what happened, Uncle?” asked an almost speechless Zé.
“Well, believe it or not – and I know you’ll believe me, as you must – the divers went to the very place the psychic had indicated and there, stuck to the seabed by seaweed… there was my brother’s body – exactly where she had said he would be!”.
“I know what you are going to say, I cannot explain, never have and never will, but the fact is I have experienced this myself! The divers brought my brother’s body home and we had him buried and, finally, my mother, although broken hearted – and she was never the same again – was more at peace. At least now she knew what had happened, as apparently my brother had also conveyed to the psychic the reason to his accident – he had become entangled in some seaweed as he was swimming and he could not free himself. He could not alert his friends who were at some distance so he had just stayed there, until he suffocated. How terrified he must have felt, how desperate and frantic he must have been…”
We were all very impressed by Uncle Jorge’s story and as we said goodnight we were very subdued. We went up the stairs in whispers, as if we didn’t want to wake the ghosts of the past. And on the days, and evenings that followed, this story, and other tales of mystery and imagination (as Poe wrote) became the order of the day. As a coincidence, some days later, after my family arrived, I met through Mom a couple from Porto who were also some sort of psychic – they said they were able to leave their own bodies and travel through walls and closed doors! Of course we could not confirm this, but we just loved to hear their stories. The man was also an astrologer, and it is a fact that he did my horoscope and predicted that I would have a successful career but an unhappy marriage…of course I forgot all about that but a few years ago Mom reminded me about this and I was astonished at the accuracy of his predictions…
I suppose we learned a lot about these subjects during those holidays and even today we laugh when we remember how frightened we were sometimes late at night after hours of telling each other strange stories. But we took all this very seriously and with some sort of respect.
In fact, we only laughed our hearts out when, one day, by the end of the month, Luisa came to see us and told us something very strange had happened.
“What? Something strange? Do tell us!”
“Well, you would remember that Lídia, while staying with us, was sleeping in “the ghost’s room”…
“Yes, of course, but we never called it by that name while she was there, so as not to frighten her”…
“Well… even so she must have been afraid to sleep there by herself after all the strange stories we were always telling after dinner…”
“Well, a few days after she left there was a foul smell coming from that room, and we could not understand where it came from…we looked and looked for days and each day it grew worse. We were beginning to think it must be some ghost…”- Luisa smiled.
“Luisa, tell us”! – we begged.
“Well – she burst out laughing – in the end Mom decided to open the door of one of the bedside tables, and there was the origin of the smell: a chamber-pot full of urine that had been there for weeks!”
“Whaaaat?” – it was our turn to laugh – “But…how?”
Luisa went on to explain that the room’s antique furniture comprised bedside tables with a compartment for chamber-pots, as in the days it had been made there were no bathrooms as we have today and people used chamber-pots by night. So there was an ancient chamber-pot inside that bedside table and apparently Lídia used it – we could only conclude she had been too terrified – because of all the stories – to cross the dark corridor that led to the bathroom and that she had used the chamber-pot and then forgotten to empty it! As it was closed inside the bedside table it would not have smelt for some days and then she had left – and after some time it began to smell! We laughed so much, imagining poor frightened Lídia peeing into the chamber-pot and then hiding under the covers trying to ward off all the terrible thoughts that came to her mind…
Well, we could laugh during the day, but I must confess that to be alone in that particular room during the night must have been somewhat daunting – as much as I stayed at Luisa’s house I always avoided it. After all, as the Spanish say “Yo no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay!” (I don’t believe in witches, but they do exist!).
As for our “esoteric” summer, it was unforgettable. As, in fact, were all the others in Madeira. But, most of all, I could never forget Uncle Jorge’s story: a story of loss, of sadness, but also a very strange and inexplicable one. Because, as we all know – some things in life just cannot be explained.
And we have to live with that.