Under the twisted, knot-riddled arms of this hundred year old cypress, two young lovers used to convene everyday for lunch, a habitual pastime that lasted about ten years. During this glorious decade they became as much a part of life in the park as the great tree itself. They were in tune with the rhythm of that small, square oasis of green, and when they sat together on the shiny wood panelled bench, enjoying cool relief in the shade from the dazzling sub-tropical sun, it was as if the encroaching noise and hubbub from the undulating streets of Lisbon evaporated. Príncipe Real became their personal garden of Eden where everything was just as it should be.
While Maria knitted blankets and weaved garments for long, hot hours in the co-op at the bottom of the hill, José worked as a pastry chef at a small café on the corner by the park, and each morning he would prepare something new and enticing for their lunch date. José was a gifted baker to say the least, but the food he prepared for Maria was created with an unparalleled level of passion that brought his talent to new heights.
A new masterpiece was conceived at the dawn of each new day – such as folded petals of pastry formed into a natural looking rose as delicate as Maria’s elegant hands, or a saucy filling of candied berries that oozed with gloss once the crisp shell was broken – so many marvels, never to be repeated, a unique art inspired wholly by and dedicated to his one true love and muse, Maria.
On the other hand, Maria thought of her work as a bore, a neverending repetition of the same stitches, the same patterns and the same styles, year in, year out, effortlessly dictated by tradition, something the old donas at the co-op just couldn’t seem to see beyond. She envied the free expression that José could enjoy from his work.
“But Maria”, he would remind, “I still have to bake ten dozen of each and every pastry in the shop, piles and piles of croissants and custard tarts, before I can even practice making something new, which I can only do for you”.
Maria wouldn’t feed his foolishness though, for she too loved him with every fibre of her being, even if he were to become deaf and mute and couldn’t manage to break an egg let alone concoct some intricate work of culinary art. She loved his person, not his performance. “You shouldn’t do it just for me José, you must bake for yourself, simply because it’s your passion”.
In José’s mind though, Maria was the singular catalyst of his artistic expression and as his love for her grew and grew, so did the ferocity with which he applied himself to his baking, expecting more and more from himself until his customers became quite astounded at his unrivalled workmanship, doubtful that one man could produce so much in just a few short hours.
But José had a magic secret that nobody knew, a special talent he had discovered only when he first fell in love with Maria. In a small kitchen at the back of the pastelaria where he worked, he suddenly found that he was able to slow down time, simply by wishing it so, and once he had finished his work in time for the café to open, he could easily whip up a compact triage of sponge cakes, arranged in three tiers and topped with a different flavoured cream and an assortment of exotic fruit, in a matter of mere seconds.
It wasn’t until Maria and José’s ten year anniversary, when they were to meet, as they usually did, under that old cypress at Príncipe Real Garden that time actually ceased to exist for José, but on this occasion without the effect of his mysterious mental influence.
Maria failed to show up. In fact there was no trace of her to be seen, nobody knew where she had gone and no amount of searching could find her. José was beside himself with worry and despair, he didn’t know what to do or where to go because his life had lost all meaning. He felt numb and defeated.
Eventually José returned to that bench where they had always been together and stayed there all through the night. He couldn’t bear to sleep in the same bed without her lying next to him, the bundle of her raven black curls lightly tickling his face whenever they brushed against it, as he held her tightly in the warmest of embraces that only lovers share such close and rare privilege.
What was he to do, you may ask? People go missing everyday all over the world and most are never found, but José couldn’t give up, pretend she never happened and just carry on with his work.
From the moment he became aware of her disappearance, José could no longer play the role of time-master that had helped him create his edible artwork, but even if he could he wouldn’t have continued doing so anyway, it hardly seemed worth it anymore…
Filled with lonesome weariness, José laid his tired body down to rest on that park bench, determined that he would never leave with an almost hysterical delusion of hope that at any moment she would arrive once again and all of life be restored.
Struggling to keep his eyes open, it wasn’t long before he fell unconscious and was plunged into disturbia with a strange and haunting dream: The world was void of all colour save the single young cherry blossom swaying in the breeze at the park’s edge, its flowers shining with a brilliant pink hue. The colour and scent combined in a blur that intoxicated his sleeping being, somehow finding relief in the feelings José shared with Maria…although lost, here they were present in all their potency.
The next morning, a dense and gnarled seed dropped unforgivingly from a branch of the cypress tree above, hitting José squarely on the crown, and inevitably stirring him to awaken with painful reluctance from an already tormented slumber. His hair and shirt were soaked with dew from the pre-dawn chill and his mind reeled with half-forgotten images of Maria calling his name, so vivid in his dreams, yet with each passing minute, rapidly fading away into nothingness, as the inescapable reality of waking life took over consciousness.
Desolate and depressed, José trudged down the cobblestone streets, passing the café where he worked without any acknowledgement of its existence or any intention of baking ever again for that matter. With a steely glint in his eyes, he finally knew what he had to do, and nothing was going to stand in his way, even if he had to die for it!
TO BE CONTINUED…