A Young Man Afoot

 

All Spain lay beyond the chain of mountains . . . and all of Portugal. It was the 1960s and Irvine Hunt walked down out of the Pyrenees, a pack over his shoulder, and for months fell in with a passing parade of roadmen and peasants, doctors and cobblers, would-be robbers, mules, donkeys, a lady clad mostly in sequins, hard-up travellers, and the adventurous young, travelling as best they may wanting to see what lay ahead.

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Extract from Chapter 36

GLAD WITH THE WORLD

Southern Portugal

Tavira proved to be a pleasant old town and after a long day of travel I started the evening by sitting outside a cafe in the main square with a glass of wine, watching the comings and goings. Soon a group of campers arrived at the nearby tables. Four of the girls were New Zealanders and there was a French boy and a Swedish brother and sister. All were looking for somewhere inexpensive to eat.

“We are very broken,” explained the tall Swedish man. I told him that I knew the very place, hoping that it was true.

The restaurant was unpretentious, a one-room affair in a shabby street. It looked promising. We crowded in and were introduced to the patron, a big-bellied man with a white apron, tied with a bow at the back. Two old men were the only other customers, sitting together in a corner, and we were introduced, one of them Portuguese in a black beret and the other Spanish.

Soup, chicken and salad arrived, accompanied by a single bottle of wine. The drink was intended to be our one collective affordable luxury.

Considering we had only one bottle we had an hilarious time. As it emptied, unexpectedly a second bottle arrived.

It was a mistake, we tried to explain, but the patron said no, it was a present from the old Portuguese man in the corner who would be honoured if we would accept his small gift. Our thanks were gently waved down, and when the bottle was empty, another appeared.

“But he looks a poor man,” said one of the New Zealand girls. “We can’t accept another.”

The French boy, Emil, with considerable charm explained our feelings to the old man. His reply, translated, has remained with me all my life: “My young friends, I am an old old man and have not long left to live. You cannot know the pleasure it gives me to see young people so happy.”

We were deeply touched. We drank his health. We sang in his honour. Emil stood up and danced, first on the floor, and then, when the owner showed he did not object, on two joined-up tables. Castanets appeared and the old man banged his palm in time on a chair. Pooling our resources, we sent him a bottle of wine in return.

Unexpectedly the patron thrust a cigar into my hand. “Churchill!” he said with a heavy wink. And now another bottle of wine appeared, this time from the patron, a special, from the depths of the cellar. The patron warned us cautiously: “Very strong!”

We drank slowly, all of it, the old man with us. Yes, it was strong.

Two o’clock in the morning had passed before we tumbled out into the dark street. Instant friends and regretful goodbyes. We said we would always remember the night in Tavira, and never forget the old man. Yes, we were happy. God bless you old man. We drifted away to our beds, glad with the world.

 

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