AFTER CHURCH

Groups of people were standing in front of the church in the mild sunshine. At the end of the Sunday morning service it was customary for the expatriates to exchange news and gossip before dispersing to get home for the mid-day meal.

The talk in the all male group I was in, centred around a young man who had just come to Sao Paulo to join his parents, having completed his education in the country they called ‘home.’ In the same group his father, Peter Smith, was talking to some of the other men , all of whom were well placed businessmen in the British Community. ‘What was Nigel proposing to do?’ was the subject introduced by the father and, as I observed, kept going long after it no longer seemed to interest the rest of the group.

To me, and I felt to some of the others, this was engineered, and there were indications of it turning into an embarrassing monologue, were it not for the quite clever and persistent and obsequious manner in which the father, with no seeming self-awareness, kept the fluidity of his delivery before the listeners standing there nursing their cups of tea or coffee.

Someone else had to talk eventually and one of the businessmen was prompted to say, ‘I’ll have a word with my Personnel people to see if there could be anything for Nigel.’ This moment was a breakthrough for the father’s plans and, as he was about to respond, a beggar approached the group with a supplicant’s demeanour. He had wandered in through the church gates and up the long drive to the nearest people. His ragged clothes and unkempt appearance were signs enough of his destitution. Removing a greasy old trilby hat from a head covered with straggling matted hair, he inclined his body forward in a half bow. ‘Alms, your honours, for the love of God.’ His servility was roughly hewn and more basic than Peter Smith’s; but it was similar in that it was borne from a need for the self-preservation of himself and his dependants.

Peter’s eyes shifted from the businessman, Richard, he was about to address, to the motionless beggar and instant irritation and frustration showed on his face. The group had turned towards the new supplicant, waiting. No one spoke until the first supplicant burst out with a short bark,’ Go away.’ The words he used were those Brazilians use to shoo away a dog, ‘va embora’ and I felt a jolt of revulsion at this. The revulsion began with Peter Smith’s gross intervention, moving to the group and eventually settling on myself as, with the others, I watched the beggar turn and start the long walk back down the drive. There was a hiatus within the group and then some words from the remaining supplicant attempting to re-float the conversation.

SEPTEMBER 1968