The Big Family

A Grande Família
by Vinicius Jatobá
translated from Portuguese by Jethro Soutar
illustrated by Bojan Krištofić

Boys and girls, I’m going to tell you an old port story and it’s one of the noblest adventures mankind has undertaken since he came down from the trees and quit monkeying around in paradise, said Tio Balela. It’s a football story, a tale of two halves. And it’s a love story. We jumped around in excitement, we pushed and we shoved and we sat our bums down on the living room floor, Nicinho elbowing his way to the best spot, irking Seu Bahia, who said behave yourself lad, someone needs to teach that rascal some manners, and Tio Balela said leave him be, he’s fresh off the baby’s bottle but he can see life’s a swindle, that you get more from biting than from biding, and anyway there’s no harm in a bit of play-fighting amongst cousins, he’ll grow up to be a man with a boxed ear and thick skin, and he’ll learn to sleep with one eye open, and that’s the way it should be. Then Tio Balela closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and he stayed like that for a while, waiting for the spark, and Felipinho, Garito and Joínho sat goggle-eyed staring at his mouth, the better to hear the story when it finally came out, and Tio Balela just sat there chewing his mouth and smiling. And then he spoke.

I’ve heard the story told many times, said Tio Balela, by Seu Nino, who was told it by his father, Old Abrão, who was told it by his father, Young Abrão, who was known as Boy Abrão among the fish and tobacco stores of Rua do Acre, where he whiled away his afternoons as a drunken bum, his chitchat dripping with nostalgia for the ugly foreign land he’d left behind. He’d tell tall tales to whoever would listen, and I only ever listened because I liked Dona Samanta’s cakes, for as Seu Bahia will tell you, I can’t stand lies and I come out in a rash whenever anyone spins me a yarn, I’m very scientific when it comes to my tales. But that old devil Young Abrão had a certain charm about him, said Tio Balela, and although I had to discount a lot of what he said before I finally heard a story I could believe in, I did believe this one, and not because Young Abrão crossed his heart and hoped to die, he’d have been long dead and buried if that were the case, for the old guy may have been an atheist but he liked swearing on the holiest of holies that his extravagant stories were true. But I believed this story, which I first heard when eating one of Dona Samanta’s fondants, said Tio Balela, because Old Abrão didn’t blink when I had him confirm the story later, and he said exactly the same thing his father had said, as if reciting his times tables, and Seu Nino didn’t scratch his nose when I had him reconfirm the story even later, and he too said the same thing his father had said, as if reciting his times tables, and every fibber has a nervous trait and I knew all their ticks and they were tickless when they spoke. So I believed them.

According to what Seu Nino said his father used to say, said Tio Balela, it all began when Young Abrão witnessed a miracle with his two blue eyes, eyes that have long since been swallowed up by the earth, and the miracle only changed in its telling in that sometimes it was raining and sometimes it was sunny, sometimes the sea was calm and sometimes it devoured everything in its wake, because Young Abrão would vary things to suit his audience. But the facts never changed, said Tio Balela, for facts are facts, and what happened was a fact and will remain a fact until the end of time. Young Abrão was sitting on a bench at Praia Formosa, looking to the horizon and drinking a beer, when a boy so stick-like he could have dodged the wind leapt six feet in the air and walloped a little coconut with his right-foot so hard, but so incredibly hard, that all the seagulls took flight and what was left of that little coconut flew out to sea and doubtless came to rest in Sergipe, unless it smashed into the hull of a ship on the way and caused some kind of disaster. The setting for this miracle was the much-missed Ponte dos Marinheiros, and Young Abrão peered down from the bridge at the kid lying in the sand, looking up into the bright blue sky, and in that kid’s smile Young Abrão saw, appreciated and marvelled at the seed that made Brazil white, black and Indian, white-black, black-Indian and Indian-white, all in the same family.

The boy playing in the sand was a Da Silva, a Da Silva like Bahia is a Da Silva, and Nicinho is a Da Silva, and Garito is a Da Silva, and Joínha is a Da Silva, and Felipe is a Da Silva, and it’s said that every Da Silva is born with a certain charm, said Tio Balela. There are Da Silvas who make tiles and Da Silvas who deliver letters, and there are Da Silvas who make bread and Da Silvas who grind stone, and there’s a Da Silva for every day of the week and hour of the day and star in the sky, and one day there’ll be a president Da Silva and an astronaut Da Silva in space. The stick-like Da Silva on the beach must have been born with one foot in a beehive, Young Abrão would say, there was so much sweetness, honey and nectar in that boy’s foot, for that skinny kid was none other than Leônidas Diamante Negro, our immortal footballing poet, favourite son of the city’s waterfront neighbourhoods, the city that was São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, a city that mindlessly cemented and pebbled over the beach and bridge where its prodigal son had been born, although the son found it in his heart to forgive this terrible vandalism, for sons always forgive the clumsy love of their parents, said Tio Balela.

Young Abrão was only young, said Tio Balela, but he foresaw what was going to happen: that skinny kid would make the whole country shout the same name and share the same passion. And this was the 1920s, a bygone era, when I was just a nipper back in Sertânia, and had never even dreamed of living in this here city. But people don’t dream of Rio, said Tio Balela, Rio dreams of people, and once the city’s chosen you there’s nothing you can do but climb into the mermaid’s bed and let yourself be entrapped, caressed and charmed, oblivious to what’s happening because your absent, distant and stupefied, until sooner or later you dock here, because it’s inevitable. That’s the way it was with me, the way it was with Seu Bahia, and according to Seu Nino, the way it was with his grandfather, that much-missed old devil, Young Abrão. He arrived in port on board the Queen Mary, with his gringo cronies and a leather ball under his arm, and they had the same fancy pompous surnames noblemen here wore like medals, but despite their funny way of talking, their light-coloured eyes and their freckles, they weren’t well-heeled and they weren’t allowed to kick a ball about the palm tree-lined fields of Laranjeiras and Botafogo. They were what they were, and ports are the same everywhere, in heaven and in hell.

As Seu Nino said Young Abrão said to Old Abrão, they may have had fancy pompous surnames, but they were the Da Silvas of England and Scotland, and they may have been as pasty-white as the make-up clad chaps in society clubs, but they didn’t wear cravats to play a kick-and-run full of rules and regulations, said Tio Balela. Waterfront and suburbs people were the underclass to the toffs back then, said Tio Balela. You kids will prove things are different today, but back then you were either in jail or you were constantly dodging the police, as they roamed the streets on the look-out for vagrants, like slave-hunters of old, or you were polishing or sweeping or welding or hammering or carrying the lord-of-the-manner’s booty on your sweaty back, for there’s a lot to smile about in this world, lots to dance for and to like, but it can be a slog too, and for every man who smiles over his file mignon, a hundred weep into their brisket. The visitors from England were an underclass with lighter skins, an underclass like us only they slept in barrels of holy water, for they too polished, swept and welded, said Tio Balela, and they had backs full of calluses like we did, for they were Da Silva Smitis and Jaimis and Tompisons. They were our brothers.

As soon as they set foot and ball in Saúde and Gamboa, they were welcomed like the crack players they were, said Tio Balela. They won everywhere they played and they played everywhere they went, wherever they found five, six, seven able-bodied men and a patch of ground to get the ball rolling. According to Seu Nino, said Tio Balela, they played on the Cleto and Damião quays, on the Pedra do Sal, at the Bragança shipyard, inside the Fluminense mill, even on the Mineiros wharf. And according to Young Abrão, who told Seu Nino, and Old Abrão later confirmed it, every game was a walkover, and every clear goal the gringos won by was worth a beer from the nearest grocery store, and once it was such a thrashing that the gringos guzzled thirty gulps of Argentinian wine, with one of them so cut he started chewing a segment of ball thinking it was tobacco. One clear sunny day the fearsome battalion privates of the marine infantry came down from the Ilha das Cobras, said Tio Balela, and the only defeat in the entire history of the battalion came that day against the gringos. But according to Seu Nino, even in defeat, the privates were happy, said Tio Balela, and they spilled out around Ilha doe Melões, blacks and whites together in a tidal wave of smiles, as noisy as a capoeira gang.

And eventually what happened, as always happens, for a port is a place of comings and goings, is that the time came for the Queen Mary to go, disappearing over the horizon. But a little while later, it was as if it were still at dock, for the number of blonde-haired boys and blue-eyed mulatto kids who appeared shortly thereafter was amazing, all of them born in the same few weeks and by the same midwife, Euzébia, said Tio Balela. And according to Seu Nino, Young Abrão would say to his son, Old Abrão, it’s just mental arithmetic: if a boy runs with a jerk and has a good shot on him and catches fish without hardly any bait on his hook, he has to be the son of Merle Loide, the gringos’ fun-loving captain, a man who was such a bag of tricks that he kicked with his hand and headed with his foot and everyone still thought it delightful and clapped. And Young Abrão would say that furthermore, the lad Rasteiro, who borrows passengers’ wallets on the Valongo tram without asking, once did so many keepy-uppies that the story Jurema, his mother, told about his having blue eyes on account of her eating so many grapes during pregnancy, had to be revised, for Rasteiro could only be the son of Jomaguil, who according to what Old Abrão told Seu Nino, once travelled from England to France doing kick-ups on deck and didn’t let the ball fall once, not even in a rain storm, a feat that made headlines in maritime union newspapers on both sides of the channel.

The Queen Mary‘s sons and daughters began to accumulate and multiply, and it was as if Old Abrão, who was still young back then, was guardian to all of them, for his house on Rua Jogo da Bola was always full of kids. And Young Abrão said to his son, Old Abrão, he who loves the city stays in the city, and some people love just a part of the city and that’s enough reason for them to stay. The part that Young Abrão loved, said Tio Balela, had a naughty smile, soft lips and a generous lap; she was the colour of cocoa, mother to Old Abrão, grandmother to Seu Nino, princess and queen to Young Abrão, whom she only ever called boy, Boy Abrão, and by the time I met her she was an old lady, who sold cakes, and the pearl that was Samanta had become Dona Samanta, out of respect and propriety, and her range of delicacies were so legendary they filled throats such as that of Jaime Mocoso, the honey-toned cherub who sang in the Radio Nacional choir and earned a bit of extra shrapnel performing serenades to betrothed maidens of Botafogo and Laranjeiras noblemen.

Young Abrão never won on the lottery nor had any luck in the Largo da Prainha church bingo, said Tio Balela. If he said it was going to rain the sun would shine, and if he chose to wear a coat it would turn out to be a scorcher. That was Young Abrão. But one day he was sitting outside a grocery store in Gamboa and saw the same dark boy from the beach whizz by on a bike with a food delivery, and Young Abrão felt in his bones that same sense of certainty he’d felt on Formosa beach. He stood up proudly and proclaimed, pointing at the boy who was by now way out of sight, that kid’s gonna grow up to be the next Isabelito Gradín, and Mário Soares Azevedo, a nibble Portuguese who made English-leather shoes on Rua Sete de Setembro, asked whether Mister Iungui was really asking whether that boy would be the next lackey or the next dunce, and before the laughter of the lettered men present, Young Abrão said what I’m really saying, Seu Soares, is that the boy will become a king, for the prince already exists, and that’s Gradín, and anyone who can’t see that doesn’t have his head screwed on. And Seu Soares burst out laughing, scratched his whiskers and said to Young Abrão, charitably, when is that big heart of yours going to realise that Brazil is a shipwreck, Mister Iungui, that having all these awful creoles tied to our feet is holding back our development, our nation. This country has a future, Mister Iungui, but first it has to free itself of its baggage, its dead-weights, the blight that is the inheritance of people of colour. And Seu Soares turned to receive the admiring looks and nods of the learned men he shared a table with.

And now, Seu Soares went on, you’ve got that imbecile Gradín giving the rabble ideas, the rabble that never amounts to anything and never will, the Uruguayans should be ashamed of themselves, this feud they’re starting, making trouble for their neighbours, creating problems and agitating, for as any gentleman knows, it’s cruel to let an ass think he might become a stallion, because an ass is an ass, a pleb is a pleb and Zé Povinho is Zé Povinho. Then Seu Soares got up and paid for his coffee and the gentlemen with him got up too and Seu Soares came over and stretched out a hand to Young Abrão and said in a kindly voice am I right or am I right Mister Iungui, and Young Abrão’s reply still echoes in the hearts of brickmakers, stonemasons, firemen, tram conductors, deliverymen, fishermen, engine drivers, stokers, crane operators, longshoremen and checking clerks today: Seu Soares, my name is Abrão Young, and I can’t be friends with anyone who’s not friends with my friends. The whole grocery store broke out in thunderous applause, said Tio Balela, and Seu Soares left the store feeling snubbed, his colleagues frightened and speaking in whispers. Laughter erupted and the owner of the establishment, Seu Ernani, said I know who you’re talking about, Young Abrão, that boy’s the son of Maria by birth and Mario by default, and Seu Manoel Nunes who died was from the port and he was an honourable man. He’s a good lad that lad, and sir’s totally right: the ball just loves his feet.

At first only Young Abrão was aware of it, and it became two when Seu Ernani cottoned on and he and Young Abrão would lurk together in the stands at São Cristovão, admiring the way the lad moved about the pitch so majestically, parading past the other boys with the ball, said Tio Balela. And Boy Abrão told me, sitting in his rocking chair on Rua do Acre for day, that two became seven, and twelve became fifty three, and two hundred and eighty five became one thousand six hundred and ninety four, until there were no fingers lon hands and toes on feet left to count all the adoring eyes that watched mesmerised, etching the young crack’s every movement on their memories. Seu Nino said Young Abrão used to say that Fluminense had fans, that Bangu had fans, that Bonsucesso had fans and that América had fans, but with Leônidas it was different, said Tio Balela, because the noisy mob that followed him around, hugging euphorically like devotees before the Cardinal, clapping and jumping like deranged goats whenever he let fly with a brilliant shot, weren’t mere fans, they couldn’t be, said Tio Balela, for what they were, what that bedlam really was, was a big family.

When the good ship Arlanza, huge and elegant, left the port of Rio de Janeiro making happy whistles and pregnant whale snorts, bound for bygone France of 1938, and of this myself and Seu Bahia bore witness, the big family Young Abrão had foreseen on Formosa beach all those years ago, had grown too big to fit on the Mauá quayside. There were so many people jumping up and down at the same time it might have caused an earthquake in Japan, said Tio Balela, and there were all sorts in that excitable family, the pretty and the ugly, the sour and the sweet, the blue-collared and the white-collared, those who spoke with plums in their mouths and those who had no teeth, and some people swear that in the committee of honour his excellency, his highness, his greatness, the president, Getúlio Vargas, whined like a weaning calf, a rosary clutched in one hand, willing for those golden boys to come back with proof of what we all knew to be true, said Tio Balela, a truth that wasn’t written down in grammar and arithmetic books but that could be smelled in the air, across oceans and continents: that we may not have invented football, but we had become its master.

Yet on that very same day, another momentous event took place in the port, said Tio Balela. Only a few stray cats remained, staring aimlessly at the sea, for the Alanza had long since disappeared from human sight, but there they remained, and they had good reason to. Great reason to, important reason to, pressing reason to. Those who’d left promptly, hurried back as soon as they heard the rumour, and those unfamiliar with the port’s past capers hurried back as soon as they’d been filled in. The stray cats on the quayside turned their heads as one, said Tio Balela, in amazement and excitement, because there in the customs quarantine, awaiting authorisation to dock, was the Queen Mary, exactly three decades since its last visit had caused such a commotion.

Young Abrão was lying in his hammock when word of the unlikely visit reached him via his neighbours, but he didn’t believe it, for as any old sailor knows, the only thing that brings back long-lost ships is the midday sun. But then the boy Policarpo arrived panting at the door, flapping his skinny little arms and yelping Seu Young Abrão, your presence is required down in the square, and Young Abrão asked is it a matter of sea or land, and the boy said it’s a sea matter, Seu Abrão, and Young Abrão knew the boy Policarpo wouldn’t lie. So Young Abrão made his way down the Conceição hillside as best he could, said Tio Balela, for by then he was never without his trusty walking stick, and he crossed Praça Mauá at a fair clip and sidled up to the crowd of curious onlookers. He peered through his binoculars and, so Seu Nino told me, a big smile lit up his face when he saw Merle Loide standing on the starboard side, head full of white hair but still very much the captain, a ball under one arm, cheeks swollen from all the cognac he’d guzzled.

They’d brought a ball and they’d brought crack players too, so it was said, but this time things would be different, so it was also said, by every tongue in every local’s mouth. In grocery stores, bars and quaysides, in factories, brickworks and quarries, atop of mules and under them too, as Seu Nino would say, there came the same message, and me and Seu Bahia heard it from mouthwashed mouths just as we did from wino mouths, and it was this: if those gringos thought they could give us another beating with their tame little shots they had another think coming; that if they knew what was good for them they’d disappear back up their gangway and make for the high seas, full steam ahead. In billiard rooms and snooker halls, in between rounds of spoof and laying bets on the numbers game, over assembly lines and clothes lines, all anyone talked about was the game, the game that should take place and would take place, and the team line-up that began to be shrewdly devised. Two runners, Girino and Fradinho, as full-backs, Seu Bahia, as strong as Domingos da Guia, at centre-half. Sebastião Lourenço, a half-blind accountant from the Vapor Quay, who was hopeless at counting centavos but could pick a pass at fifty yards, as a half-back. The boy Rasteiro, keepy-uppy champ and a boy no more, at outside left, and the ball-playing offspring of Merle Loide alongside him in the forward line. No soon had Jaime Mocoso been thought of than he showed up singing a waltz, and Madame Leila Buriti agreed not to wear a dress and not to speak so high-pitched, but said he’d only play if he was still allowed to wear make-up, and he was and so it was settled. Selection continued, said Tio Balela, crack players summoned one by one as a waterfront dream team began to form.

Until there were just two places left, said Tio Balela.

Roncador was woken by Comandante Brito in his prison cell on Ilha das Cobras, and Comandante Brito asked Roncador if by any chance he liked Vargas and Roncador said no, he didn’t like him, and Comandante Brito asked Roncador if by any chance he’d like to give Vargas a kiss and Roncador said forgive me Comandante Brito but no, he wouldn’t like to give Vargas a kiss, he’d more likely give that cuckold a kick, and Comandante Brito asked Roncador if by any chance he believed in God and Providence and Roncador said forgive me such an affront Comandante Brito but no, I’m not a believer for I’m an anarchist, and Comandante Brito said an anarchist how charming, does that thick head of yours have no shame. Then Comandante Brito scratched his beard and asked Roncador if by any chance he believed in the ball and Roncador said my dear Comandante Brito I pray to the ball every God-damned day, for it is the most divine thing that has ever been and will ever be created, from the beginning of time until the end of the world, and Comandante Brito said in that case Roncador, consider your esteemed self selected for the mighty port team that will give those gringo jokers from the Queen Mary a hiding in five days time, and Roncador said a happy yes sir Comandante Brito, you can count on me.

Which meant there was just one place left, said Tio Balela.

But it was difficult to get hold of Evandro da Silva Berto, for Evandro da Silva Berto didn’t exist. If you went to Gamboa and asked for Evandro, nobody would have heard of him, and if you went to Estácio and asked for Evandro, nobody would have heard of him there either, same as they wouldn’t have in Saúde, Santo Cristo or Caju. But if you asked for Cinco Pernadas, the brave would break out in a cold sweat, maidens would shiver in shame and the lettered would open their wallets, said Tio Balela. For he who was born Evandro da Silva Berto was rechristened when young, after being set upon by a throng of cowardly police in Praça XV and letting fly with a capoeira roundhouse and a half-moon, taking out eight policemen in two swoops, hence Quatro Pernadas, the four-legged kid. While still a boy he collected debts, he bodyguarded candidates for office and minded entrances to grocery stores, said Tio Balela, for he was brave, fearless and feared, and though he still only had bum-fluff for a beard, he had the respect of the toughest ex-cons on the street.

Evandro da Silva Berto made the leap from four legs to five after he went to work at the Gênova cabaret and the lovely girls there fought and scratched over the right to have him as their protector, said Tio Balela, but it became enshrined in legend after he was stabbed fifteen times in an ambush attack one moonless night in the dark shadows of the Canal do Mangue, and was then seen the very next day dancing with six mulattas at Estácio as if nothing had happened, with not a scratch on him, his smile as bright as ever, his voice still small for such a man mountain. There were those who didn’t believe what had happened and those who did and set to prayer, and those who weren’t sure but were shit-scared either way. What there wasn’t was anyone who dared go near him again after that.

So if even Vargas couldn’t track Cinco Pernadas down, said Tio Balela, and Vargas had the whole police and army and church at his disposal, how could anyone else expect to find that rascal in whatever corner he skulked in? It was impossible, and it went on being impossible for three days, until I was drinking with Seu Bahia and Girino and Elídio and Macau and Fradinho and Jurubeba and Japonês Anastácio, and Cinco Pernadas suddenly just appeared, in flesh and blood, blown in on the wind, and he says good afternoon gentlemen, a little bird tells me Seu Young Abrão wants to talk to me, and I said yes that’s true, we’ve been looking for you everywhere Seu Cinco Pernadas, and Cinco Pernadas said it didn’t bode well to be findable, people only find me when I want to be found, and if I go looking for someone, it bodes ill for them to be findable, for I’m not in the habit of scouring the streets looking for people. Then he sat down to find out what it was all about, and he was told in detail what it was about and he smiled, for it would be his pleasure to let his five legs loose on the gringos.

And thus the line-up for mighty port team was signed and shaken on, said Tio Balela.

Back then, Old Abrão was still a nipper, but he remembered a lot, said Tio Balela, things he told me and things he told his son, Seu Nino, and that Seu Nino then told me. And Old Abrão’s most cherished memory was not breaking into the Cemitério dos Ingleses to eat jabuticabas and mess around, much less of skiving off school to listen to Jaime Mocoso record songs at the Radio Nacional studios. No, his most cherished childhood memory was seeing Young Abrão and Merle Loide embrace when they were finally reunited after the Queen Mary had spent three long days at sea awaiting authorisation. Old Abrão told me, and I repeat it now for the benefit of you kids, that the friendship between Young Abrão and Merle Loide was true friendship, and in that embrace Old Abrão’s father found all that he’d left behind in English and Scottish lands, lands he only visited in dreams. If I close my eyes and let my mind wander, said Tio Balela, it wanders back to the door of my house in Sertânia, just like one day you’ll all remember running riot around the streets of Vaz Lobo, Irajá and Vicente de Carvalho, for everyone has a sense of nostalgia, and it’s good to have one, and the older you get the more you live in it.

Young Abrão and Merle Loide sat down and they started chatting as if not a day had gone by, never mind thirty years, since Young Abrão had decided to stay on Carioca soil. Young Abrão and Merle Loide sat there and they drank, Old Abrão told Seu Nino, said Tio Balela, and there they remained, chattering away in that silly language of theirs, and all the Queen Mary‘s offspring sat around listening to them, though they couldn’t understand a peep, and they laughed when Young Abrão and Merle Loide laughed and they cried when Young Abrão and Merle Loide cried. And Old Abrão said that when they cried it was beautiful: Merle Loide took out a silk cloth bundle and inside was the tattered cap that used to go on Kelvin Leite’s bald head and the wooden pipe that used to go in Kelvin Leite’s toothless mouth, and Kelvin Leite was Young Abrão’s father, Old Abrão’s grandfather, Seu Nino’s great grandfather, and Young Abrão and Merle Loide fell silent. They looked out upon the distant city, for they were at the top of Conceição hill, and then Merle Loide muttered something in his language and Young Abrão said yes, there’ll be a match, it was all set.

And all set it was, said Tio Balela. The crowd piled in around the São Cristovão pitch and there were police and firemen, bacchanal experts and moonshine connoisseurs, employers and employees, handymen of every sort, pretty girls with cavity-less smiles and a multitude of delicacies from Canal do Mangue and Ilhas dos Melões, said Tio Balela. The crowd was already in a frenzy, for Brazil had beaten Poland in a six-five thriller, and so it was madness in the stands, more like a Deixa Falar carnival ball than a football match. The gringos laughed and savoured every minute of the non-stop party, and silence only descended when Padre Macedo from the Largo da Prainha church came on to the pitch to say some nice words about love and peace and brotherhood, and he closed his Bible and everyone clapped and then he sat down on the port team’s substitutes bench, for the hallowed priest was our intrepid coach.

Lining up to represent the port was the best team in all the world, players who have gone down in folklore and are still talked about today. There was Seu Bahia and Girino and Fradinho and Sebastião Lourenço and Jaime Mocoso, who sang the national anthem in tears, and Madame Leia Buriti in shorts and shirt but with a rosy pink mouth, and there was Rasteiro, his hair standing on end like a drowned rat, and Lero, Raposo and Mascate, Meire Lorde’s three sons from three different port beauties. There was Japonês Anastácio, who couldn’t shoot for toffee but was good in the air, Severo Augusto Matraca Leocácio, fugitive leader of the dockers union, who Comandante Brito pretended not to recognise, and whenever someone told him it was the much-feared Matraca he’d tell them to wash their mouths out with soapy water and buy themselves a pair of specs, and Roncador all gallant in brilliantine and a red bandage on his arm, so bright that when people said to Comandante Brito it was a Communist or Anarchist or rabble-rousing symbol, Comandante Brito said actually it’s a wine-coloured ribbon in honour of Nossa Senhora da Conceição and we’d do well to respect a citizen’s faith please friends. And there was Cinco Pernadas, said Tio Balela, a bundle of fury and huff and puff, and when people said to Comandante Brito my dear Comandante aren’t you going to arrest that dangerous outlaw he said it can’t be Cinco Pernadas because Cinco Pernadas died after being stabbed fifteen times on the Canal do Mangue, everyone knows that, this here is Evandro da Silva Berto, a good man and a law-abiding citizen, and well-dressed besides.

Lining up to represent the gringos were just a bunch of ugly people, said Tio Balela, at least they were until afterwards, when in the post-match celebrations we got to know them inside out. There was Franquarque, short and stocky, arms thicker than his legs, a man who marked forwards so closely that from a distance it looked like love and courtship, and when he’d gone home the fruits of his visit blossomed and they all had arms thicker than legs and they formed a travelling circus, so I’m told. Alberto Royal, who ran so fast that in one enthusiastic burst of speed he kicked up clouds of dust and came to a halt only when he reached the gates to the São Cristovão main entrance, and afterwards he took such a shine to a girl in Estácio that I’m told he dreamed up a samba, in a language he didn’t even understand, wrote it down on a piece of paper and gave it to her, and it was such a fine samba it’s still sung today.

There was Samuel Açougue, said Tio Balela, a man who loved other people’s legs so much he seemed determined to take home the shin bone of any player who crossed his path, with or without the ball, and who nearly split Japonês Anastácio in two with an off-the-ball tackle. There was Tomá Sem-Lei, who performed a somersault in the middle of the pitch, thinking he was Leônidas, and played the rest of the game with a limp, wittering on in that budgie language of theirs, and then there was another called Estildarte, said Tio Balela, who scored a goal with his left foot and another with his left hand and who, with his matinee looks became the idol of the Canal do Mangue girls, who flashed their titties at him whenever he went near the touchline, and there was Brodisren, who at one point in the game fell on top of Madame Leila Buriti and remained there for over six minutes, forming an obstacle in the middle of the pitch that half the crowd said was the ding-dong of the century and half said was a doomed love affair, and either way Padre Macedo gave them his blessing afterwards, much to the delight of everyone in the grocery store.

But the devil himself was Bile Cutão, said Tio Balela. That young buck dressed up a haggard face with a scruffy little goatee and he ran on the tips of his toes with jumps so fleet he looked like a cavy, and he ran and ran and never came to a stop, not even when the ball left the field of play. Bile Cutão was a man of faith, said Tio Balela, for when a cross came over he leaped in the air when the ball was still high in the sky, and the ball seemed to move towards his head out of respect for the audacity of the man, and he was such a good footballer that for every two goals the gringos scored, three of them were his. At one point in the game he’d scored four goals in a row and Comandante Brito had to be talked out of arresting him, and even when Lero, Raposo and Mascate hugged hold of his swivelling hips as he burst forward with the ball, the skinny young buck just dragged the poor lads along with him, and almost knocked Rasteiro’s head off with his shot.

He was a legend was Bile Cutão, said Tio Balela, and for every goal Rasteiro or Cinco Pernadas scored, Bile Cutão responded in kind, and the gringo was so full of cunning and jiggle that an incredulous drunk shouted that whitey’s so good he has to be a black albino. Nevertheless, the port team proved a match for the gringos. Ecstatic supporters invaded the pitch at the final whistle, raising quaysiders and gringos aloft alike, for they were all heroes that day, and we went from grocer’s store to liquor store to tavern to bar, and we ended up sitting our backsides down on the pavement outside Young Abrão’s as he handed out cachaça and wine and cognac, and he even presented every player with a hat smelling of new leather. The revelry was such that the score got forgotten, said Tio Balela, and even today it’s hotly disputed in bars and restaurants from Praça XV to Praça Mauá.

What is known, for it’s an established, engraved and undisputed fact, said Tio Balela, is that the dish invented by the English had been reinvented by Brazil, we’d made it our own, ours to feast on. Young Abrão and Old Abrão and Seu Nino would have said the same, and the whole world knew it too, after listening to radio commentators describe, in every language under the sun, the tricks and flicks performed by Leônidas, Domingos, Batatais, Nariz, Britto and the rest of our footballing gods on the brioches of France. Not even the ref who darkened Domingos da Guia’s good name by inventing a penalty, blatantly gifting the Italians victory, could undo what had been done that heavenly year of 1938, because we’d all become princes, said Tio Balela, and as the old samba went, let the gringos keep their crown, they who have blondes but have no mulattos, for we were all princes and we had a king who’d no need of a crown, and that king was Leônidas Da Silva.

From the veranda of their house on Morro da Conceição, Young Abrão and Old Abrão looked out to sea, and they saw the good ship Arlanza returning with the golden boys, but they didn’t go down to Praça Mauá to welcome it, said Tio Balela. And that’s because from their vantage point they could see the Queen Mary departing, the very same day Leônidas and his troupe returned. Young Abrão had his father’s cap on his head and his father’s pipe in his mouth and his father’s grandson at his feet, said Tio Balela. According to Seu Nino, Old Abrão asked Young Abrão if one day he too would adventure on the high seas, and father told son that there’s no need to lad, this country has more land to set foot on than the rest of the world has sea to swim in. The sun shone that day, Seu Nino would tell Seu Bahia and me, whenever we dragged lunch out in his tavern, when the Arlanza returned all full of smiles, and at my father’s feet sat the match ball from when the port beat the gringos, the same ball I had framed and put up there on the wall for the whole world to see. That’s the ball of Young Abrão and Merle Loide and Old Abrão, of Roncador and Cinco Pernadas and Bile Cutão, of victory and defeat, Seu Nino would say to us, and anyone else who’d listen. And he’d puff out his chest and his eyes would well up with tears, may Seu Bahia be my witness, said Tio Balela, and boys and girls he’d say this: that’s the ball of the big family that is Brazil.

Jethro Soutar is a translator of Spanish and Portuguese. He has translated works from Argentina, Brazil, Portugal and Guinea Bissau, and two novels by Equatorial Guinea’s Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. He is a co-founder of Ragpicker Press. He is also the Editor of Dedalus Africa.

We would like to thank the editorial team from Ragpicker Press for the generous permission to republish The Big Family. The translated version of A Grande Família was first published in The Football Chrónicas in June 2014. Please find a link to the initial publication here.