This is the story of a journey and of a grail that was found and emptied and filled again by magic. Every word of it is true. The journey was undertaken by the photographer and myself and liquor ran through it like water like gurgling down a Madeiran mountainside.
Up in the dreamland of first class the photographer and I savoured Portuguese wines and Scottish malts. By the time we landed in Funchal, lack of sleep had added an edgy zest to the experience. The captain threw the engines dramatically into reverse. Fear dropped in like an olive. We stepped gingerly onto God’s island.
It was clear from the start that Photographer and I were a recipe for an exiting new cocktail. Poured together into a small Avis car on the wrong side of a road consisting entirely of sharp bends and vertiginous overhangs, a road used by drivers of veiculo longos to practise for the Paris Dakar, we tended to arrive at our destinations both shaken and stirred: a Madeiran Martini.
Madeira is a gnomic garden that is always in blossom, a volcanic extravaganza rising lush and sheer from the green Atlantic. It is a place to make you understand that the Hispanic tradition of magical realism is no more than a mirror held to the world. It should come as no surprise to you that three hundred years ago the Virgin appeared on a hilltop to the villagers of Egreija.
Madeira is also an interesting place to switch to the other side of the road. The veiculo longos, keen to qualify for the rally, accelerate into the corners. And Madeira is all corners. Steep corners. There is really nothing you can do about the veiculo longos bar turning sharply into the gutter and stalling. The photographer was very helpful. I took charge of the centimetres between me and the speeding veiculo longos and he worried about the right-hand bumper. He veered between optimism and despair.
“You’ve got plenty of room,” he would say. “Fine this side.” And then:
The photographer and I were really excited when we got the Avis car to Funchal. Even more so when we spotted our hotel, the Savoy. Then it disappeared. We’d see it’s enormous shuttered Spanish visage and try to approach from a different angle. At the last minute we’d be distracted by some small crisis, like a traffic circle, and Mr Berardo’s hotel would vanish into thin air. Its elusiveness was as magical as father Antonio’s bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. The hotel was as ephemeral as its owner, Joe Berardo.
Joe Berardo left Madeira as a youth and travelled to South Africa to make money. He started off selling vegetables to the mines. He lives now, when he is in Funchal, at the very top of the town in the small and stately palace that lies at the centre of the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens which are owned and run by the Joe Berardo foundation.
Because, for a South African, Madeira is a mixture between extreme foreignness and astonishing familiarity, because it is an island on which the extraordinary will occur, Joe Berardo once bought a painting from my friend, the painter, Carl Becker. Carl’s work contains certain surreal juxtapositions.
“Why you put the car on the pole?” Asked Mr Berardo. Carl sweated. How would he explain his ironic view of Johannesburg mine dump and Southern African society to his potential patron?
“You don’t know, do you,” said Joe Berardo.
“It doesn’t matter.” Said Joe Berardo. “Is interesting. I take it.”
Mr Berardo’s hotel is all old marble and chandeliers. Early on the morning of our arrival a small bandy uniformed man was polishing leather banisters. Our chambers unready, we were ushered to the Bellevue Buffet on the 7th floor. It is as big as a rugby field, owns a view of the wide Atlantic, and is inhabited by 137 couples, all aged sixty-five. Baring the smallest variation in pastel, they dress identically. The men carry floppy white hats for the sun. They all wear glasses. They speak seven languages between them and they come for the flowers.
We understood why that afternoon when we drove into the flower parade.
“You cannot go to the Savoy,” said the astonished policeman, “there is a festa.”
Car abandoned in a parking lot, we watched as Funchal’s sons danced past wearing uncomfortable life-sized papier-mache dolphins on their heads. Funchal’s mothers had painted their shoes blue to match the dolphins. The floats were all made of genuine flora and one was crowned by an island girl with golden stars jingling on her nipples. I absconded and walked down to swim in the Savoy’s warmed seawater pool on the rocky shore. I was a lone character in a movie in Eastern Europe until one of Mr Berardo’s men came and offered me a towel.
In the morning the Photographer and I hit the roads and got lost. Within hours we had cemented our relationship by saving each other from certain death beneath the wheels of veiculo longos which approached at great speed from the unexpected direction. We turned north and drove over the central spine of the island and down to the coast at Sao Vicente. Sao Vicente is a hardware shop and a cafe and a couple of houses in a garden landscaped by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in an opium dream. Down on the shore water oozed from the rock where the buildings were cut into the hillside and majestic Atlantic rollers crashed on the shore. We drove through streaming rocky tunnels to Porto Moniz. Along the way precipitous steps led to vineyards that clung to the mountain. Often the road was just wide enough for the car and I offered sincere Catholic prayers to the saints at every bend.
And then, in the afternoon, we came to Egreija. We stopped at Egreija because Father Antonio put into the mind of the photographer the thought that he would like to buy a pair of boots. And so we looked at the boots in the shop and had a beer. Outside, Paulo the carpenter and the shop keeper’s husband were putting up the wooden frames for the flowers for festa to celebrate the appearance of the Virgin on the hillside above the village three hundred years before. It became necessary to take photographs of them. Then the photographer became happy and charming and he directed other inhabitants of Egreija to sit in the light in the entrance of the shop so that he could photograph them also.
It was only in saying goodbye that we introduced ourselves and shook hands with Paulo the carpenter and tried to hide our astonishment at the feeling of the stumps of the fingers which he had lost many years before in an accident and about which he was philosophical. Paulo’s name is Paulo Lorenco Caldiera and he worked for many years in Van der Byl Park near Johannesburg. He took us to see the church and his workshop and on the way we passed the house of Moses Acafrao, the mayor of Egreija, who for many years owned and ran the Outspan Cafe in Sundra in Johannesburg and the Sundra Cash Butchery. We got talking, the major and I, and before long I had to call the photographer and tell him that we had been invited to taste Mr Acafrao’s wine which was pure and new.
The mayor explained that when the wine became old he took the thick residue from the bottom of the barrel and distilled from it an Aguadente much more powerful than the wine which owned only “eight or nine degrees of alcohol.” It became necessary then to taste the Aguadente also and we liked it so much and were so lavish in our praise of the mayor’s vegetable garden and his pigs and his chickens that the major gave us a bottle.
Then father Antonio arrived. Father Antonio speaks no English. He is eighty-eight years old and his pale eyes have faded to allow the light of God which shines strongly on the inside of his head to have access to the world. We were instructed that we would visit him in his house.
“Very clever,” said Paulo of father Antonio, “four passports!”
“But they don’t hear,” said the mayor, pointing to his ear, “we must look after them.”
Father Antonio’s eyes gleamed through his spectacles and he spoke happy and excited words of which we understood nothing but the good will from which they emanated.
“He is the biggest authority in the village,” said the mayor, and then he paused for a long time, “on religion.”
Father Antonio had a preliminary errand to attend to and so we drove down the hill in the Mayor’s old right-hand drive South African Merc to see his vineyards. We parked on an 800 metre cliff. Far below, nestling next to the sea, were the vines whose produce we had tasted. The grapes, and sometimes the mayor, made the journey up and down the cliff in small metal basket. On Madeira a mini cable car is the farmer’s equivalent of a tractor. The thought of the journey was enough to give me gibbering nightmares. Fortunately Mr Acafrao could not demonstrate the mechanism as the cable had recently snapped.
Father Antonio’s house is a fine square doubled storied building in the centre of Egreija. Its orange tiles and white walls and dark green shutters are sparkling clean. They are devotedly maintained, like the dark and gleaming interior, by the villagers of Egreija. In the dining room, Father Antonio sat on one side of the table and the photographer, the mayor and I sat on the other. Paulo the carpenter and the mayor’s son remained outside. Father Antonio produced a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, four tumblers and a cake. Christ watched from the cross on the wall. Father Antonio broke the cake and poured generous measures. We raised our glasses. The whiskey tasted like ice cream. We spoke. The mayor translated. Father Antonio beamed at me, interrogated me. I told him my marital status. Father Antonio replied. The mayor referred to him in the godly plural.
“They say: ‘Married with three children – very rich people!'”
Father Antonio rose and produced two more cakes and another bottle. These we must take with us. He looked at me with merry eyes, indicating the cakes.
“For the wife and children!”
I guarded those cakes carefully on our travels and brought them home. For a time I carried the whiskey also but one night we got drunk on The Algarve and I borrowed some money from the photographer and the next morning I couldn’t remember how much it was. The photographer said he also couldn’t remember.
“Look,” he said, “why don’t I take the scotch and we’ll call it quits.”
And so it was. But when I arrived home my wife had offered refuge to a friend and the friend had left a present. There on the dining room table, gleaming by divine intervention among the fruit bowls, was the grail offered to us by Father Antonio, there, reincarnated, was Father Antonio’s bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label.
James Whyle grew up in the Amatole Mountains of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Conscripted into the apartheid army, he was discharged on the grounds of insanity. He did everything in his power to assist the authorities in arriving at this diagnosis.
Has published poetry, short stories and journalism. Radio dramas, commissioned by the BBC, include A Man Called Rejoice which was published as Rejoice Burning in the UK in New South African Plays. His story, “The Story”, was chosen by JM Coetzee as winner of the 2011 Pen/Studzinski competition.
The Book of War was short listed for the Sunday Times Literary Award.