A Few Hundred Screws Loose
Sample translated by Ana Fletcher (do livro Trezentos parafusos a menos, Moderna, 2013)
‘My dad is a complete tragedy,’ Tatiana thought to herself, as she sat on the toilet, tearing out tufts of hair from her beautiful mane of unruly curls.
That wasn’t altogether true. Mr Souza could sometimes be a tragedy, yes, but for the most part he came closer to a type of comedy. Everyone who knew the pale, overweight, balding oddball with his permanently restless, perennially ill-at-ease ways, knew just how difficult an oddball he was to categorise.
In any case, if someone were to come along and ask Tatiana if she was happy, the answer would most likely be, ‘I think so.’
Although money was tight, she led a fairly comfortable life. She was an only child, and did actually like her parents. True, they sometimes drove her crazy. Especially her dad.
‘My dad is an absolute dinosaur!’
It’s just that Mr Souza was a very particular man. The examples pulled in and out like trains through the station hiding under Tatiana’s wild mop of hair. Name one? Well, Mr Souza didn’t believe in going away on holiday.
‘Go away? What for? Where to?’ he would ask, any time somebody brought up the subject of holidays, or said they’d like to go and visit such and such a place, or even just that they dreamt of, perhaps someday, taking a trip somewhere. ‘Why bother going to the effort of taking all your clothes off their hangers, packing your bags, going off and spending all your money, just to end up back at home again? Now that’s what I call a total waste of time! If you’re leaving only to come back again, I’d much rather just stay put.’
Another example: Mr Souza didn’t believe in answering the telephone.
‘Tell them I’m not in!’
Or, on the rare occasions when circumstances forced him to answer, his conversation lasted a matter of seconds and always went something like this: ‘Hullo? Yes, yes, fine. Bye.’ And then he’d slam down the receiver.
Tatiana’s dad hated his job at an accounting firm, but he’d worked there for aeons.
Sometimes, she’d notice his chubby hands, always busy with a biscuit, or a slice of bread and butter, a boiled sweet or some other edible item.
‘Why don’t you look for another job, instead of sitting around moaning?’ Mrs Souza would ask from behind her knitting.
‘One job’s as bad as the next,’ he’d explain, munching on the last chocolate in the box. ‘You’re always going to have to work Monday to Friday; you’ll always have your boss and your boss’s boss and your boss’s boss’s boss; you’ll always get fixed hours, the same work to do over and over, pointless meetings, bad pay, cold coffee, office gossip, paperwork and timewasting. Why bother making a change if you’re just going to end up back where you started?’
His wife disagreed.
‘But you could at least try something different!’
‘Trade six for half a dozen? Swap nothing for nada? Steal from Peter to give to Paul?’
‘My dad is a piece of work!’ Tatiana would sigh as she sat on the loo, counting the number of blue tiles in the almost-completely white floor of the bathroom.
A piece of work or not, the fact is that it would be humanly impossible to comprehend the complete debacle, the near-disaster, and the borderline-derangement to later befall the household, without first getting to know a bit more about Mr Souza.
Tatiana’s father was so completely, utterly and unfailingly methodical that he could have been a cash register. He woke up every day at six-fifteen sharp. The next five minutes were spent stretching. From six-twenty to six-thirty, he showered. Then, he would wolf down his breakfast, barely bothering to chew: three mugs of milky coffee, two or three slices of cake, several slices of bread and butter, yoghurt, honey and some biscuits. He left the house at precisely six-forty-five. It could be raining cats and dogs, it could be colder than a well-digger’s feet or hotter than the hinges of hell. It was impressive. Tatiana had timed it so often she’d lost count.
Another thing that drove her up the wall: Mr Souza was sure to go to the toilet every evening at a quarter to seven – fifteen minutes after getting home from work.
‘But, Dad, how can you always need to go at exactly the same time, every single day?’
As it happened, there was only one bathroom in the Souza family home. If, by chance, somebody else was using the loo during the allotted time, Tatiana’s father grew anxious, impatient; he paced the living room distractedly, rubbing his hands together and sweating from every pore, his face one of utmost urgency. And on the rare occasions Tatiana went on holiday with her parents, it was always the same story. As soon as it was time, her father would stretch his arm out of the window to indicate (the indicator on their little white VW Gol was permanently in need of fixing), pull into a service station and ask where the toilets were. On one occasion, they were still driving when the sacred hour came around. Through the front window Tatiana could see the mountains in the distance, the empty road stretching out ahead, its tiny bends disappearing into the horizon. Mr Souza didn’t hesitate for a second. He pulled over onto the hard shoulder, reached for the roll of emergency toilet paper he always kept in his trusty pleather briefcase and disappeared into the bushes. Tatiana looked at her wristwatch. It was exactly quarter to seven!
‘Someone should report my dad to the police,’ Tatiana thought to herself, as she lay on the living room couch with her legs in the air, chewing on her toenails.
Little did she know at the time how prophetic that thought would turn out to be: a dramatic prophecy that nearly altered the destiny of the Souza family forever.
Tatiana liked to think about her friends’ fathers. A row of dads filed through the corridors of her mind. All of them normal. All ordinary. None too fat nor too thin. All had jobs they enjoyed. All successful, well-adjusted and leading contented lives. All of them dressed just like everybody else. None of them troubled by crazy, senseless ideas.
Mr Souza, you see, only ever wore grey trousers, a white shirt, black socks and black shoes. He had two suit jackets: one enormous and dark grey, the other dark grey and enormous.
‘But, Dad, your clothes are like a uniform! Can’t you mix it up a bit? What’s wrong with a patterned shirt?’
Mr Souza would just shrug his shoulders.
‘It’s all the same to me!’
But for Tatiana her dad’s very worst habit was his eating. Mr Souza was completely obsessed with food. He’d been known to leave the house at ten-thirty at night and walk three blocks just to buy a sweet treat or a portion of pão de queijo – cheesy bread balls – at the bakery. He’d taken to hiding packets of biscuits in strategic points around the living room so he wouldn’t have to share them with anybody.
One day, Mrs Souza baked a batch of mini almond cookies and warned her husband that he had better not scoff them all at once. ‘You’re to make them last, do you hear me, Luís?’ And, amazingly enough, the cardboard box sat on top of the fridge for several days, apparently full of almond cookies. One day, when Tatiana climbed onto a chair to reach for a cookie, she discovered that her father had made a small hole in the bottom of the box. Slowly, day by day, he’d been siphoning off fistfuls of cookies, then using the same hole to cover his tracks by stuffing the box with scrunched up pieces of kitchen roll. Anybody who opened the box and looked at it from above would think it was still full. But soon enough the cookies were – very suddenly – all gone. The family was indignant.
‘How can you be so selfish?’ Mrs Souza screamed, waving the empty box about.
‘Greedy pig!’ Tatiana shouted, her eyes shiny with tears.
Despite his gluttony, Mr Luis, paradoxically, did not believe in pizza.
‘But Dad, everybody on the face of the planet likes pizza!’
‘Everybody on the planet, my foot!’ would come his scandalised retort. ‘Pizza is the biggest scam in the culinary world. Just think about it. They’ve got no nutritional value and they all taste alike. Mozzarella pizza, Four Cheeses pizza, peperoni pizza, this pizza, that pizza. It’s all a giant swindle. It’s just outright cheek to make up different names for what is essentially always the same thing.’ And then he’d finish up with: ‘The only think pizza’s good for is to make you fat. It’s utter rubbish, that mound of greasy cheese slathered over a doughy base and drowned in oil and ketchup.’
Sometimes Tatiana just wanted to disappear.
Desserts, on the other hand, were Mr Souza’s weakness. Strawberry cheesecake, chocolatey brigadeiro, coconut candy, apple pie, coconut toffee, doughnuts, shortbread biscuits, flan, ice cream, bonbons, tarts of every stripe and colour, filled or otherwise. When confronted with certain cakes, Tatiana’s father’s eyes would brim with tears. Once, while eating a slice of chocolate and walnut cake, he declared:
‘If one day I should happen to be driving alone along a deserted road at night, in my little white VW Gol and, suddenly, a light appeared in the sky and a spaceship came down before me and I stopped the car, and a gaggle of green aliens emerged from the ship and they asked me what the pinnacle of achievement of human civilization was, I would say, with my mouth stuffed full of it: “chocolate and walnut cake!”’
‘My father should come with a public safety warning,’ Tatiana thought to herself as she watched the telly.
Speaking of which, Mr Souza didn’t believe in adverts, either. He was fond of saying that if he wanted to buy something he’d go to the shop and that was that.
‘I bought a television set so I could watch the news, films, interviews, documentaries, current affairs programmes, football matches and telenovelas. Not to watch these adverts – a bunch of people in too much makeup posing for us, always pretending they’re happy, acting like they’re your best mates, winking, making faces, making a racket, shouting and lying through their teeth, just to shill their products and get us poor viewers to hand over our hard-earned cash.’
When the ad break came around, Mr Souza normally turned the sound down, closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. One time, Tatiana walked into the living room to find her dad arguing with an advert.
‘Lies!’ he was shouting. ‘Of course cigarettes are bad for you! Don’t give me your “people who know what they want are free to do whatever they like” codswallop. Why would I want to be free to get cancer while lining the pockets of the tobacco company owner? Shut your mouth, you blockhead!’ He was yelling at the young man in the ad, a suntanned jock with a surfer’s body and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. ‘What are you laughing at, you moron?’ Tatiana’s father continued. ‘Go smoke that crap where the sun doesn’t shine!’
‘My dad belongs in a museum!’ Tatiana would agree with herself, fishing out a piece of lint lurking in her bellybutton.
How was she ever to imagine that her father – that awkward, fastidious, overweight man – would have the nerve to do what he did?
Mr Souza arrived home every evening at seven-thirty on the dot. He would turn off the little radio playing in the kitchen, open the fridge to find something to snack on, then disappear into the bathroom. Afterwards, he’d put on his pyjamas and begin his ritual: 1) eat a fistful of the small cookies he liked; 2) straighten the pictures hanging on the wall; 3) arrange the furniture and ornaments in the living room so they were all correctly aligned; 4) check for any post in the letterbox; 5) if there was post, separate out the junk from anything that needed reading; 6) sit in the living room and read the post; 7) after dinner, watch the news and whatever film came on next, then go to bed. Bedtime was always at a quarter to ten, whether or not the film had finished.
They were – Tatiana acknowledged as much – habits that any father in any family, anywhere, might share. The difference being that Mr Souza was unfailing: he did the exact same thing every blinking day at the same blinking time and in the same and only blinking way. During her short time on this earth, she’d never, for example, seen her father arrive home and switch on the telly before having straightened the pictures on the wall. Or, God forbid, eat a cookie after rearranging the furniture in the living room.
One day, Tatiana deliberately decided to collect the post from the letterbox before her father got home.
When he saw the letters already sitting on the table, without him having gone to fetch them, the poor man was left completely bewildered. He took a painting off the wall and hung his dark grey suit jacket on the hook. He tidied his shoes away under the fridge. Finally, he dragged one of the armchairs to the spot normally occupied by the coffee table, in the middle of the living room, and sat himself down on the floor. Tatiana was worried but couldn’t help laughing as she watched. She feared her father might end up going for a wee in a corner of the living room, or in one of the pans in the kitchen, but instead, Mr Souza lost the urge to go to the loo that day altogether.
‘My dad is a few peas short of a casserole!’
But the worst of it was that Mr Souza seemed to be forever down in the dumps. It was as if he didn’t take any pleasure or joy in living. His rare smiles were always strained and would spread across his face with noticeable difficulty. Tatiana’s father gave the impression of a man carrying an enormous, invisible boulder on his back.
Tatiana knew her father loved her.
Sometimes, when she was least expecting it, Mr Souza would pull his daughter towards him and give her a great big hug brimming with tenderness. Or he’d ask if she fancied joining him on his stroll to the bakery at ten-thirty at night to buy cheesy dough balls. Or he’d look at her so sweetly and with so much affection that she felt a warm fuzzy feeling in the pit of her stomach. But those were rare moments. Normally, when he was at home, Tatiana’s father was lost in his own little world, a tired look on his face as he went about his many procedures.
Tatiana loved her dad, too, but, to tell the truth, she’d have preferred a more normal dad – one who wasn’t so down in the dumps, a dad who liked his job, who didn’t have a schedule for his trips to the loo, who didn’t get so worked up over the ads on the telly, who was happy to wear a different shirt from time to time and who, at least once in a while, might say yes to a slice or two of pizza. It has to be said that, truth be told, sometimes he actually did.