Watching the France versus Portugal final of the European Football Championships it occurred to me that my limited knowledge of that nation extends to fortified wine, pasteis de nata, and just one single person. I’ve travelled to the far west of the Iberian peninsula, reporting on Lisbon and the Douro Valley for the UK press and television media and yet the only Portuguese person I’d ever sat down and talked with at length with – was right here in Cornwall.
His name is Gilbert, Gil to his friends, and not only does he hail from Portugal he actually knows Ronaldo, the Portuguese captain stretchered off the field of play in 25th minute of the final, in Paris. An Arsenal supporter himself, following the Gunners on a large flat screen television in an apartment overlooking the harbour, often with a single malt at his side. I can’t remember how we came to be discussing the Real Madrid star but whatever it was my opinion of the ‘Galactico’ increased exponentially after Gilbert set me straight.
Gilbert was born on Madeira, that tiny archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, 620 miles south west of Portugal and 310 miles off the coast of Africa. A population little more than a quarter of a million living in the foothills of verdant, misty mountains. Gilbert’s frequent holidays there yielded avocados the size of rugby balls grown in his family’s garden in the hills.
One evening over a glass of single malt Gilbert mentioned that he knew a young Ronaldo, when he was just another local kid kicking a ball about. His family was dirt poor and Gilbert’s mother would often provide the boy who would become a legend, his parents and siblings, cast-off clothes. Fast forward and Ronaldo is making enough money to buy homes for all his family and friends, and friends of friends. And as if that’s not enough Gilbert said the reason Ronaldo doesn’t have any tattoos is because he is a blood donor a generosity of spirit forbidden to those who submit to the tattooist needle. Some blood banks insist on a needle free period of three months prior to donating.
Watching Ronaldo attempt to play on, with his leg strapped up, and finally carried off on an orange stretcher, tears in his eyes, there could only be one team in the final for me.
I can’t remember exactly when I met Gilbert, maybe ten or 12 years ago, but I recall where it was: The small car park on the quay where he an I kept our cars. Andrea, the daughter of Gilbert’s partner Lota, had introduced us at a family function, but I got to know him subsequently back and forth along the quay.
I never knew his age, until last year when he and his extended Cornish family flew to Madeira for his 80th. He didn’t look it. Unlined, his skin the colour I like to be after a few days on the beach; lightly tanned, somewhere between a latte and the praline filling of the chocolates my mother used to buy. He dressed well, something of a rarity in these parts, where people comment on highly polished shoes. Soft and casual with just the hint of an affluent golfer.
His strongest feature a warm easy rolling demeanor. His head tilting from side to side as he spoke, with a soft, indistinguishable accent, and a ready smile peppering every conversation. There are people in every town you find yourself slowing down or turning the other way to avoid. Gilbert isn’t one of them. Gilbert is the man you looked forward to meeting. He put you right by reminding you how comfortable life can be. He even laughed at my jokes.
He and Lota, arm-in-arm, strolling around the quay, were as much a feature of the harbour as the fishing boats. It’s not much of a walk from their front door to the other side of the harbour and the wrought iron bench from where they could see their apartment through the sailing masts and cop a few late afternoon rays.
If Gilbert’s style is casual smart Lota’s is 100% a la mode. Never having been seen in public anything less than completely immaculate. This woman, with steely eye and a hearty laugh, takes dressing well to another level. Maybe a twin-set in a bold colour, or a summer coat. Her lightly curled buttery blonde hair sometimes beneath a hat, or more often than not wrapped in scarf.
Lota didn’t take to me as easily as Gilbert whom you sense would hit it off with someone who’d just driven over his foot. Lota is more circumspect. I had to earn my stripes, show I cared for the town and am in it for more than just turning a quick profit on a property. I had to go to work on her. But I’ve yet to meet a woman, especially one so rigorous in their appearance, who doesn’t respond to a compliment. Lota is no exception.
The pair met abroad many years ago. Widowed Lota had gone for a holiday, staying at the hotel where Gilbert worked. She returned several times until the day Gilbert decided to return to Cornwall with her. They lived in an apartment on the side of the harbour where every autumn Gilbert boiled up jars of marmalade. So good I have been pro-ordering several for some years.
Lota is in care today. She’s been ill for some time. Worse, in fact, than anyone outside the immediate family had realised. For some months Gilbert cared for her, alone. It must have been hard because that warm, friendly face soon turned fraught with anxiety and exhaustion. I’d meet him in the street where he seemed withdrawn. I took a bottle of wine around to their apartment one time, family photographs on every shelf, the windows shut and the air hot and heavy. We didn’t drink it. He wasn’t up to it, but he promised to get the cork out just as soon as both their healths improved.
Of course his didn’t. He died in hospital a few weeks after being admitted with a minor infection. I was asked to say a few words at his funeral, causing me more apprehension than any newspaper deadline. It was enough that few at the service know who I was? More than that – I didn’t really know enough about him to speak with any authority. Save his opinion of Arsene Wenger. He was just a lovely man, who brightened my days. That would have to be enough.
When Ronaldo limped up those steps in the Stade de France to raise the UEFA trophy for Portugal he couldn’t know he’d done it for Gilbert too. Just like Gilbert and his family had done it for Ronaldo all those years ago.