Benedito the cartman was a lonely sad-faced bachelor with watery eyes and a liking for drink who could be seen all around the settlement with his mule and cart, clearing away rubbish or transporting goods. The British ex-patriate wives utilised his services a lot and gave him their husbands’ discarded clothing and other bits and pieces. Although he seemed to have no redeeming features, his very unobtrusive humbleness and his willingness to help with his cart anywhere it was needed, meant that everyone knew Benedito by name and stories about his helpfulness would circulate at the club. His job was his life and he seemed to be proud of his association with the great houses of the foreigners, even only as a dustman. There was another cartman but he did not aspire to any contact with the ex-patriates and so worked on the roads with Antonio Machado.

But the days of mule drawn carts were at an end, even in this time-warp, and the cartmen’s future came up for review when new mechanised transport was put at the Olaria’s disposal. The cartmen could either retire with a pension and lump sum or move elsewhere in the company to work for the same money they currently earned. The other cartman accepted the first offer but Benedito said he didn’t  want to give up his mule and cart. It was left to B to persuade him and it was clear after a couple of talks with Benedito that no power on earth would change  this sad, lonely man’s attachment to his job. It wasn’t as if there was an alternative. The wheels had already been set in motion and the new transport was already doing the work he had done and it was assumed by the management that the talk with Benedito was purely a form of counselling. Benedito’s case eventually went to the personal department and what he was told there would never be known, but the fact emerged that afterwards Benedito believed that B was the final arbiter on whether or not he could continue driving his mule and cart.

As he sat at his desk one morning with the door, leading on to the sunlit verandah, always open, the figure of Benedito stood hesitatingly half inside and half outside. ‘Como vai, Benedito?’ said B a little unenthusiastically, anticipating more unfruitful talks. Benedito did not reply and then, muttering something, entered the office slowly. Watching him coming towards the desk, B saw him put his hand inside his coat and pull out a revolver. Time stood still as he froze in his chair. Benedito held the revolver uncertainly and B watched paralysed as he pointed it towards his left side. ‘Why do you come here with that thing, Benedito?’ he heard himself ask in a voice he would not have recognised. ‘You can give me back my mule and cart, senhor, everyone says so.’ ‘Let us talk about it then.’ ‘I only want my job.’

He could see the watery eyes that so touched the English senhoras’ pity, and he could smell the strong scent of cachaca – the raw sugar cane drink that Benedito had taken to find the courage to come here with a gun to threaten or even shoot his boss. This man was not dangerous, B had worked out, in the seconds he had, but if frightened or opposed he could do something unpredictable, and that might mean putting a bullet into me. He was now talking to Benedito soothingly, calmly, although his mouth was dry, and never once did he take his eyes from the face before him that was working with a strange movement of suppressed emotions. As he talked he rose slowly from his chair and moved sideways around his desk to the side where Benedito was standing. It was not any ordinary manoeuvre that B made, but a gradual easing of position continuously, unhurriedly and unthreateningly.

It was like playing the children’s game where you move up to someone with their back turned to you and you must stop and freeze into immobility if the person turns his head to  look in your direction. If they see you moving you are out; if not they turn their head back and you continue to move slowly forward to win by touching them before they turn and see you moving. Benedito and he were playing a version of this game and B was moving infinitesimal degrees as Benedito nursed his gun, blinked his weak eyes and wouldn’t move his head to catch B out, although he held in his hand that which would win him the game.

There was a suspension of time as the one talking, moving body drew ever closer to the other stationary, brooding one. With an agonising sense of apprehension B moved alongside and slowly raised his arm which he lowered gently on to the furthest shoulder as if to embrace. ‘let the gun go, Benedito.’ A sort of sob shook the man as he replaced his revolver back into an inside pocket. ‘I only want my job back, senhor.’ ‘Of course you do.’ With his arm around the cartman B guided him towards the open door. ‘Now you go home and put the gun away.’ And Benedito went with his head down, looking neither to right nor left, a sad, forlorn figure with the weird and fantastic thoughts his head had held as he left his home to go with his gun to the office, replaced by other thoughts whose emotional depths were too deep for him to comprehend.

Benedito was counselled by the company police chief, Jose Pires and other Brazilian chiefs but he was a broken man, and a few months after the incident he was dead. People said it was the drink but B knew, as he watched the coffin with the faithful carter’s remains lowered into his final resting place, that it was the broken heart of a lonely soul who had lost his only anchor in life and died in grief and despair,