The following is a true account of an evening I spent in a small bedsit room in the Alfama district of Lisbon, Portugal in 1974.
December had thrown it’s chill cloak over Lisbon, the nights had turned towards Christmas, bone cold, silent and dripping with pendulous stars.
I finished dinner around 8.00, and as I slumped into an armchair, my limbs heavy with food and my head thick with red wine, there was a soft knocking at the door.
I opened it and was confronted with 5 or 6 small tousle-haired urchins, aged around six or seven.
Their leader was a beautiful Moreno boy, his hair tight with curls, black as pitch, framing a face that seemed to move like water in the light of the lantern he held. He bade me, ‘boa noite senhor’ then gave a few hushed instructions to his companions.
After some preliminary shuffling and nudging, they began to sing with diamond clear voices that seemed to slice through the chill night air, sharp, falsetto and unutterably beautiful.
They sang of a child born in a stable; of a star hanging in the night sky; of The Virgin and the hot rancid breath of the beasts that stood over the infant.
As I watched and listened, it felt to me as if the tidings they were bringing were new, the joy still fresh.
A tiny, doll-like girl of around 5 took up a solo and sang in a voice so clear and pitched so high that one felt stripped and shriven of all sins.
As she sang, the others watched her with dark solemn eyes, lips pursed, ready to enter the chorus. And as they added their voices to hers, their heads seemed to become disembodied, floating in the air like Botticelli spirits.
And looking at this ragged little bunch I believed all that they told me, for they were bone thin with eyes that swam with disease and knew what it was to sleep on beds of straw.
After giving them what few coins I had and some slices of thick bread and jam, I closed the door and returned to my armchair.
I sat motionless for some time, listening to the chatter of passers-by in the street below, staring thoughtfully through the bare window at the quartered moon pinned against the black velvet of the night sky.