Title: The Wistful Wanderings of Perceval Pitthelm
Author: Rhys Hughes
Publisher: Telos Publishing
There is a shop somewhere in this town that sells bittersweet longing and I decided to seek it out and buy enough for the afternoon and perhaps the evening too. I wandered the streets of Figueira da Foz and if I happened to meet a stranger I asked them for directions, but no one knew where it was, though most had heard of it.
My yearning to find and enter that shop grew steadily more intense, and it now occurred to me that I already had what I wanted, a bittersweet longing for the building and the product sold by its keeper to his clients. But this simply wasn’t sufficient.
Perceval Pitthelm is my name and I’m sure you already knew this and I am English and a writer of adventure novels. I came to Portugal because I had been told it was a more tranquil land than my own in which to write a new book. This turned out not to be quite true. Nonetheless I was fairly satisfied with my circumstances.
I was a little lonely, indeed, but my health had improved. Originally, I planned to stay three months, but I now felt I would be here until the day of my death. Of course, that day might come with any particular sunrise. It could even be today. Fate likes to take us by surprise and teach us useless lessons. Who can say why this is?
At last, purely by chance, I found the shop at the far end of a dark and narrow alley that went nowhere else. The low doorway was covered by a curtain that I realised was a ragged flag and it tickled the nape of my neck as I stooped to pass under. I emerged in shadows and it required a minute for my eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Then I saw I wasn’t alone and that a man was sitting on a chair behind a long counter on which stood rows of oddly shaped jars and bottles. His teeth shone faintly behind a wide but unjustified smile. Most illumination came from the vessels in front of him, an eerie phosphorescence of many shifting colours. I took a step closer.
‘There is bittersweet longing in the glass containers?’
He nodded slowly. ‘Correct.’
‘I didn’t realise it came in liquid form.’
‘You can freeze it if you wish, then it will turn solid. You may heat it over a flame and inhale the vapour. But at room temperature it is a liquid that emits the glow of its own sad craving.’
‘Shall I drink it neat?’
‘Not if you are unaccustomed to it.’
‘I am English, you see.’
‘Of course you are. Drink it mixed with tea. ‘Saudade’ in its raw form is too potent for you. The effects are dramatic. All day and night you will stand on the shore waiting for something you may not even recognise if it arrives. Your hair will grow long in hours and float in the wind, whipping your face and urging it to gallop off your head, even if there is no wind at the time. So many tears will stream from your eyes that your cheeks must go mad from the excess of salt.’
‘I’ve never had mad cheeks! My features are sane.’
‘Keep it that way, Senhor.’
‘Yet I wish to taste bittersweet longing …’
He sighed deeply and said:
‘I understand and I won’t try to discourage you, but imbibe it slowly, a few drops only. This stuff is lethal. Mad cheeks have been responsible for much mischief in the past.’
I was intrigued and asked him to cite examples.
‘Well,’ he continued, ‘there was once a man named Dom Daniel and he drank against my advice half a bottle of distilled saudade and went off to stand on the beach, to weep, wait and gaze at sea, and his cheeks went mad and began swelling with delusions of grandeur and they became too big for his face and gravity tore them off. The tide dragged them far out and he assumed they were lost forever. Back home he walked, ashamed to own a face without cheeks and dreading the anger of his wife when she found out, but those lost cheeks of his didn’t drown or sink to the bottom. They kept riding the currents.’
‘And were washed up on a remote island?’
‘Indeed, Senhor! How did you guess? On an island off the coast of far distant Brazil they reached a new shore and they took root in the sand and grew into cheek trees, extremely tall and festooned with cheeks for leaves and those cheeks blushed deeply like overripe fruits and they were visible to the crews of passing caravels.’
‘Do they still sail caravels in Brazil?’ I asked.
He shrugged. ‘Why not?’
‘We are living in the modern era, that’s why.’
‘Oh no, Senhor! Oh no!’
‘What did I say wrong? What is my blunder?’
‘Saudade doesn’t permit one to remain in the present. It takes us back, my friend, to a time that perhaps never was real but has been lodged in our hearts since we were children, to a time and to places from that time. The magical lands that filled our daydreams, those visions of wonder and marvels, those gentle golden easy places, when we knew that travel was a miracle that would take us there one day, always one day, one day, yes, but never now, never soon. We just had to wait to grow up and the power would be ours. But we did grow up and nothing was as simple or fine as it should have been. The lands were gone, we couldn’t locate them on any map, for we had forgotten to look into our hearts, where they really were, slumbering and fading all the while.’
‘But what happened to those giant cheek trees?’
‘Nothing at all, Senhor.’
‘Didn’t anyone climb them?’
‘To pluck unripe cheeks, you mean? No! The cheeks blushed and the blushes were visible for many leagues across the ocean. Burning blushes that pulsed in the night like lighthouse beams. How do you think it made sailors feel? Sure, they could navigate using the blushes, but cheeks will respond to other cheeks like brothers.’
‘And also like lovers?’
‘Exactly that way! You are no fool, my friend. I knew it before and I know it again. The cheeks of the cheek trees blushed and the cheeks of the sailors blushed in sympathy. How embarrassing for grown men! How humiliating that must be in front of their comrades, all together with their scarlet cheeks pulsing and burning!’
‘And they began to avoid that island, to sail far around it, to take long detours out on the open ocean?’
‘You are perceptive. And saudade was to blame.’
‘The tale is intriguing.’
‘This really happened,’ he told me, and he sighed again, ‘so take care if you sip saudade, even if you dilute it with tea. This isn’t fake stuff, the bittersweet longing of actors in films.’
‘I listen. I have no desire to lose my cheeks.’
‘Oh Senhor! This stuff is intoxicating and throbs your soul as well as your heart. It must be swallowed only in drops. As for cheeks, they are perilous and weird, but let me tell you something. Knees are worse, much worse. Knees! Bear this in mind.’
I said farewell to Old Rogerio, for I already knew his name and in fact had spoken to him at length before. But saudade cares not for precision. It prefers the vagueness that frames a longing. One must never be quite sure what exactly one is yearning for…
About the Book:
Writer, explorer, inventor, fantastist … join Perceval Pitthelm as he takes you on a journey in the township of Kionga, self-propelled on a pair of massive, mechanical kangaroo legs. His stories may be wild, but his adventures are even wilder. In a riot of imagination and literary sleight of hand, Rhys Hughes presents an old-style adventure set in East Africa, Brazil and the Sahara Desert in this novel. We’re talking Philip José Farmer crossed with H Bedford-Jones meeting James Hilton by way of Karel Čapek (in his War with the Newts phase). And with hefty chunks of Flann O’Brien and Boris Vian thrown in for good measure!
About the Author
Rhys Hughes has been writing fiction from an early age. His first book was published in 1995 and since that time he has published fifty other books, nine hundred short stories and many articles and poems, and his work has been translated into ten languages. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Having lived in Britain, Spain and Kenya, he is now planning to move to India. His poetry tends to be humorous light verse and offbeat lyrical fantasy, influenced mainly by Don Marquis, Ogden Nash, Edward Lear, Richard Brautigan, Ivor Cutler and Spike Milligan.
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