A city of Memories VI: Carmo in Coimbra


As promised in my previous post, here is my account of the time I made amends to Carmo for making her cry. In Carmo’s photo albums there is no trace of this time, nor could there be: there were no cell phones then to capture what was happening. But we both remember it well.

Just turned seventeen, Carmo and I met again as freshmen at the University of Coimbra, a city built on a hill crowned by the university campus. We were both reading Germanic Philology, though her mind was more clearly set on the Law School, a 13th cent. building with a courtyard where the more dashing young men tended to congregate.

Bear with me for a second while I describe the setting so you can “see” how we moved when time came to act. A sculptured gate stands between this courtyard and a larger one, on one side of which sits the Humanities college we attended. This, in turn, opens onto an area with streets branching right and left and a monumental staircase straight ahead, leading down steeply to a main street. Now and then, we were told on arrival, police would clash with students up in the Law School courtyard, corral them to the top of these stairs, and charge; there was nowhere to go but down, jumping, tripping, falling.

The "Monumental Staircase"

“Why do people protest? What is there to protest about?” asked Carmo. In her fairy tale Portugal, all was well under the sun.

We shared a room in the same house and I was often invited to have tea with her family when they came to visit. They raved about the virtues of the country’s ruler. He kept us safe, they said. Carmo and I certainly did not protest. Outwardly, we were rather similar: same general tastes, same social background. But I was acutely reminded of the differences when a classmate who stopped coming to school in the middle of the year was killed soon after that in the colonial war in Africa. Carmo was puzzled.

“Why on earth would he enlist before exams?” she wondered aloud as we walked home one day.

I tried to wrap my mind up around the idea that she really had just asked this question.

“People are conscripted. You know that, right?” I replied.

“Yes, but not if you’re in college. They wait till you’re finished,” she replied. “He must have enlisted.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was common practice for the State to send students off to war who were vocal about freedom of speech. I found it hard to believe she didn’t know it.

“Do you really think he enlisted?” I asked. “Do you know of any reason why he would? Might he, I don’t know, have been forced to enlist?”

“Forced? Why?” she asked, sincerely.

I pondered whether to tell her right then and there, but I simply didn’t know how, or how safe it was to do it. Torture, political prisoners held beyond a legal framework … at best, she would not believe me. I remained silent. For entirely different reasons, I acted just like Carmo: I studied and never looked sideways. I was afraid.

Soon it was June, the month of finals. Thirty freshmen sat in a large room on the first day of exams, nervous and hopeful, and wrote for three hours on Shakespeare. I remember the bell ringing. We put our pens down,  picked up our bags and headed out to the long corridor where we first became aware of an unusual silence; the college seemed empty.

Humanities College - the door and the part of the courtyard

As we emerged onto the wide marble hallway, we saw the doors close down on us. In a split second decision, we  ran to open it, but it proved to be too heavy. We stood around wondering what to do when we saw the door open slightly and the door attendant grimace at us through the crack.

“Are you quite sure you want to come out?”

We all nodded. We wanted to go home, rest.

“OK,” he said, opening it a bit wider.

We came out a little awkwardly, tripping on each other, only to stop on the first of the low steps as the door closed, this time behind us. What stopped us was again the silence and the emptiness of the courtyard. Sensing something was very wrong, we began to come down one step at a time.

All of a sudden, hell broke loose from the side of the Law school. Groups of students and police with shields and batons came running past us;  dogs held on to people’s clothes. In the confusion, I saw one of my teachers, a middle-aged poet, being shoved against a wall and an older student who read poetry in the cafeteria sometimes, pushed, bleeding, into a bus in a side alley. I made the movement towards him, but didn’t go forward. I could not get him back. The bus windows were dark, but I could see the iron grids. More students were pushed in. The image remains engraved in me.

Aerial view of the campus with the Law School and the Humanities college (Photo by Luis Afonso, Panoramio)

Shakespeare had been erased from our group memory by then and survival mode set in. We backed up the steps slowly, as we had been told (“when chased by police, never ever run”), and glued ourselves to the door, trying to push it in, to be invisible. We looked for the attendant who had opened it for us, but there was no one. No one to open the door. No one to save us.

Carmo pulled at my bag, looking puzzled but, strangely, not afraid.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

“What?” I asked, in disbelief.

“We never did anything wrong!” she added, making a move forward. “Come.”

(to be continued)



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  • Maria Clara Paulino

    Dear Cathy - I am truly grateful for your encouragement. On a conscious level, I hadn't even noticed what you are referring to, about action and inaction. But so much of writing is about discovering. You are helping me discover.