All Stories, General Fiction

He Promised Her An Ocean by Miriam Burke

Taddeo gets up with the sun; he prides himself on not being one of those Brazilians who think every day should be carnaval. He looks out his twelfth floor window at glass and concrete towers that are home to people from all countries of the world, people who live peacefully together. He’s proud of his adopted city.

He looks at his powerful body in the bathroom mirror. His black skin and height comes from his slave ancestors and his face comes from their Portuguese masters. Women and men slow their walk to stare when they pass him in the street. Young girls in cafés blush when they serve him. His father took one look at his black skin and said: ‘He’s not mine.’ He was gone when Taddeo and his mother came home from the hospital and they never saw him again.

He listens to the radio while he makes coffee from robusta beans grown in Rondônia. He listens to the BBC because he learnt his English from American soap operas, and he wants to talk like an Englishman. He and his mother had no one so the TV families became their family. They loved every one of their TV relatives, even the cheating ones.

He likes his flat because there is so much light, and it feels good to live in the sky.  The tenant is a junkie who sub-lets to him. Taddeo’s rent pays for his drugs and he sleeps on other people’s floors. The neighbours won’t report Taddeo to the council because no one bangs on his door in the middle of the night, shouting for money.  And he helps them if they need to bring a washing machine or a fridge up to their flats.

He goes to the gym early in the morning. It’s full of young straight men exercising before they spend their day at a desk. They are part of each other’s morning landscape. They nod and sometimes smile. They share the goal of improving themselves. He likes their seriousness. Gay men behave as if everything is a joke. And they gossip like the old women in the favelas.

He spends two hours at the gym; lifting, pushing, pulling, and boxing with a leather bag. He listens to 1970s disco music while he trains. When he’s finished, he showers and goes to the café for a protein drink. The waitress is a tall, blonde Serbian who bends her head as if someone is criticising her. She is studying to be a teacher and she has come to London to improve her English. He’s the only customer this morning and she sits at his table for a while.

‘Don’t you get bored coming to gym every day?’ she asks.

‘All jobs have boring parts.’

‘I don’t understand. What is this job?’

‘I work as a male model.’ It’s a lie but one he tells often.

‘Of course.’

‘You must have things you do that are hard but worth doing.’

‘Declining the English verbs; that’s my gym.’ She laughs. ‘There are too many irregular verbs – this language needs sorting out. How did you learn your English? It is very good.’

‘I’ve lived here longer than I lived in Brazil.’

‘It’s only way to learn.’

‘My accent is too American.’

‘I like American accent; it is not so ……harsh. Is that the word?’

‘Yes, it’s a word.’ He looks at his watch and says: ‘I better go. I have a meeting with a photographer.’

‘Enjoy your day. I see you tomorrow.’

He goes back to his flat and puts on a grey suit, a white shirt, and brown leather shoes. He looks like a pimp if he wears cool clothes. He packs a small black leather case and sets off for the underground.

The grey brick house in Chelsea is four stories high with a black wrought iron balcony on the first floor. A plant with lavender coloured flowers grows up the wall. The judge is wearing a dressing gown when he opens the door. He is bald and his pigeon grey eyes are cold. He doesn’t speak. Taddeo walks up the polished wood stairs to the first floor bathroom. He changes into black leather trousers and a black leather waist-coat with silver chains. There is an envelope fat with fifty pound notes taped to the mirror. He puts the envelope in his case.

The judge is waiting at the end of the stairs. Taddeo follows him along the hallway to the cellar door. A pack of dogs surround a fox in a painting that hangs in the hallway.

The walls of the cellar are lined with racks of wine and the floor is made of stone.   A metal bar is fixed to the low wood ceiling. The judge takes off his dressing gown. His fat white stomach hangs low over his erect penis. Taddeo takes leather straps from his case and ties the judge’s hands to rings on the metal bar. He fastens them tightly.

The lashes are slow to begin with. The judge’s fat back and hanging buttocks disgust him and he starts to whip him harder and faster, harder and faster.

The judge shouts: ‘Mea culpa.  Mea culpa.’

Faster and harder. His screams grow louder. Harder and faster. He is every old man who tries to fondle young boys. He is the thief of innocence.  Taddeo holds the lash with both hands. Rage comes out of his heart and into his hands. Faster, faster, faster.

‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa….’

Taddeo doesn’t stop until his arms get tired. The judge is screaming, and his back is bloody. Taddeo unties him and he falls onto the cold stone floor. He lies there bleeding and whimpering. Tomorrow, he will judge the lives of others.

Taddeo walks back along the King’s Road to the underground station. The only other black person on the street is a guy selling The Big Issue. The women are wearing dresses that cost more than a worker in Brazil can earn in months. He takes a tube to The West End, to meet a friend in a Portuguese restaurant.

It was hard for his mother to find a job because there were so many poor women where they lived. Taddeo started working in the local grocery shop when he was eight. He was proud to be working; he was the man of the house. They paid his mother in food. Lifting and carrying boxes of fruit and vegetables helped him grow strong.

When he was twelve, he joined a boxing club. His mother was frightened he would be hurt but she knew he could be hurt a lot more if he didn’t learn to defend himself.  He was a good boxer but there were other good boxers and he had no father to push him forward.

Diogo is drinking Vinho Verde; Taddeo has never seen him without a glass of wine. He’s wearing eyeliner, his nails are painted blue and he has the pale skin of slave owners.

‘I’ve ordered for you,’ Diogo says in Portuguese. They always speak Portuguese to each other.

‘How did you know what I want?’

‘You always order the same.’

‘I might have wanted a change.’

‘Hard morning at the office?’ He was staring at some blood on the middle finger of Taddeo’s right hand.

‘Cut myself slicing an avocado.’

Diogo raises his eye brows.

‘I’ll go and wash my hands.’

When he gets back, the waiter has brought his caldeirada and Diogo’s cozido.

‘It’s good,’ he says. ‘The fish is fresh.’

‘It’s always good. It’s why we come here.’  Diogo looks up from his food and asks: ‘What do you do with all your money? You don’t drink or take drugs and you clearly don’t spend it on fashion.’

‘I’ll go back home and buy a big white house on a cliff above the sea. There’ll be a path down to a sandy beach. And an infinity pool.’

‘How will you explain your money to the local people?’

‘I’ll say I was a businessman in London. It’s not a lie; I’m in the man business.’ He laughs.  ‘I might get involved in local politics and try to improve life for poor people.  Maybe I’ll marry and have children.’

‘Mother of God; you’re some cookie. Can I visit?’

‘No way. I’ll be a respectable citizen.’  He drinks some water and wipes his mouth with a white linen serviette; he feels like a priest during the Eucharist. ‘How is married life?’

‘We shop, we cook, we eat, and we watch box sets.’

‘That’s marriage. You can’t order fish and send it back because it’s not meat. Get a job.’

‘Work never suited me. I think I’ll take a lover; that’s how straight men stay married.’

‘Your husband might divorce you.’

‘I am his drug – he will never leave me.’

‘You’re such a romantic, Diogo.’

‘There is always someone who loves and someone who is loved. There is always a master and a slave; that is our nature. Will you come clubbing with me?’

‘It depends where. I’m not going to one of your sleazy dives full of rent.’

‘There’s a new club opened on Wardour Street; very upmarket.’

‘Okay. Text me some dates. Have you seen Lucas?’

He takes the tube to West Kensington. When he was fourteen, he was walking back from playing football on the beach one Sunday evening when a tourist started talking to him. He was a middle-aged Englishman. He asked if Taddeo would like to see his hotel room. He was staying in one of the most expensive hotels in the city so Taddeo agreed to go back with him; he had only seen luxury on TV.

He offered Taddeo two hundred and fifty real if he sucked him off. Taddeo was sure the tourist had made a mistake in converting from his currency. He left the room believing the man was the sucker.

He told his friend they could make great money if they hung around expensive hotels and were friendly to the male guests. They were used to old men pestering them so it wasn’t a big deal.

His mother believed him when he told her he was working as a messenger boy for a luxury hotel. He was able to buy her a huge television set to watch her soap operas; he said it was an old one that had been thrown out by the hotel. If she admired a dress in a shop window, he would go back and buy it for her. He had to be careful not to make her suspicious by spending too much. Most of the time, he bought little cakes she loved and fresh flowers from the market.

He was eighteen when he met a man who said he would pay Taddeo’s fare to London and set him up with well paid work. He told his mother he would come back after a year. She had always dreamed of a house with a view of the sea so he promised her an ocean.

He sent her money every month and letters full of lies. When the year turned into a second year, and a third, she gave up. She had waited so many years for her husband to return and now she was waiting for her son. She grew tired of waiting.

The banker lives on a private estate of luxury apartment blocks. The rich do not want to see people with bad haircuts and cheap clothes. Taddeo gives his name to the security guards at the road-block leading into the estate.

The banker opens his door wearing a frilly white apron and a pale blue shirt. He would make a good spy because there is nothing about his face or body that is memorable. Taddeo wouldn’t recognise him if he saw him on the street.

‘I baked you cakes,’ he says.

The apartment has glass walls that open into a tropical garden. The steel kitchen looks like a laboratory. Taddeo sits on the black leather sofa and the banker puts a tray with coffee and a plate of small iced cakes on the mosaic table in front of him.  He stands on the other side of the table watching his visitor. Taddeo tastes the coffee. He jumps to his feet and spits the coffee all over the banker’s shirt. He sits down again.

‘It’s not hot enough.’

‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’ll make some more.’

The banker picks up his phone and sends instructions to his coffee machine. The machine starts to grind beans. Taddeo will have a machine like this in his house.

‘That’s better,’ he says, after he tastes the fresh coffee.

‘Try the cakes.’

Taddeo take a small bite and makes a face.

‘What’s wrong? I followed the recipe very carefully.’

Taddeo gets up from the sofa and walks slowly over to him. He takes a handful of the other man’s hair and pushes his face in the plate of cakes.

‘I can’t…. breathe.’ He struggles to get the words out.

Taddeo pulls his head up. He sits down again.

‘They’re too dry.’

The banker’s face is covered in cake.

‘I’m sorry.’ He looks as if he’s going to cry.

‘Don’t,’ says Taddeo. ‘It’s pathetic.’ He drinks some coffee. ‘I have shirts that need ironing.’

‘I’ll do them immediately.’

Taddeo opens his case and takes out two clean white shirts. The banker goes to the utility room for the ironing board and iron. He puts the board up near to where Taddeo is sitting and plugs in the iron. Taddeo throws the shirts at him.

After he has been ironing for a few minutes, Taddeo walks over to him. He is ironing the back of a shirt, up near the collar. His hand is shaking.

‘That crease shouldn’t be there.’

‘I’ll get rid of it.  I’ll re-do it.’

Taddeo slaps him hard on the side of his head. ‘You can’t even do this right.’

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’

Taddeo throws him on the wooden floor. When he tries to get up, Taddeo puts a foot on his chest and presses down. There is fear in the banker’s eyes. Taddeo opens his zip and urinates on his face.

He picks up a fillet steak and the ingredients for a salad on his way home. He watches a soap opera on the small TV in his kitchen while he washes the salad and fries the steak. He likes his English TV relatives. American soap operas are about the rich but the characters in English soaps are ordinary people struggling to get by.

He spends the evening on a website looking at seaside properties in Brazil. The house must have a big garden because his mother’s body will be buried there. She will have her view of the sea.


Miriam Burke

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2 thoughts on “He Promised Her An Ocean by Miriam Burke”

  1. An interesting tale of amorality. Taddeo is leading a pretty horrible life to apparently fulfill a worthy promise. The writer doesn’t seem to judge, and neither do we. The resonance of the title with the ending is excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

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