I left the Casino at Estoril with just enough for one more night, and my return ticket home, if I could call anywhere by that name now. I took a walk along the sea front with a sense of liberation and a growing determination to do what I had to do next.
The ornate tower of the museum was covered in scaffolding, a couple of lethargic looking workmen balanced over the façade in the cool afternoon sun. Through the main entrance was a quadrangle of crumbling columns and cracked blue tiles. A small man in a faded blue blazer sat in front of a desk in the corner – the only sign of human life, and not much at that.
He gestured towards a side door from where an even smaller man appeared, his forehead tanned into deep wrinkles beneath a receding hairline.
“You would like to see the museum?”
I looked around for any sign of admission prices.
“One Euro and twenty cents.”
I could still stretch to that.
“I am Pedro, your guide. I apologise first for my very bad English.”
“It’s better than my Portuguese.”
His eyes seemed to be pleading innocence. You’ll never guess why I’m here, I thought, and I’m certainly not going to tell you.
“Please come with me.”
I followed him into a room of dark furniture and sombre paintings of aristocratic figures from past centuries.
“Thees is the drawing room.” The same intonations which sounded sexy on the croupiers were faintly pathetic from this little man preparing his performance for an audience of one – one with ulterior motives.
“The castle was built by an Englishman in 1902.”
“An Englishman, really?” He smiled at my signs of attention.
“Yes, is name is John Smyth-Fortescue.” He lisped over the “th”. “He made a lot of money importing British goods here to Portugal and he want to build a family castle near the sea. He have this table made especially.” He folded back the top of what looked like a teak coffee table, to reveal a green gauze surface of twice the size.
“You see, he like to play cards, and like this he lose all his money.”
“What happened to him?”
“He had to sell the castle and all the furniture to a Portuguese Count, for thirty thousand escud’sh. You see here the Count’s ancestors.” He pointed to the paintings. “You see the one on the middle?” The largest was a grand, disdainful figure in eighteenth century dress. “This is the great grandfather of the Count. Now, I want you to do something for me please. Look at his eyes. Keep looking at them and come with me.”
The evil eyes of the ancestor followed me as I crossed the room.
“Now you can look through the other rooms and if you have any questions, please ask them to me.”
He stood back, looking awkward and I moved into the next room. A huge gold ornament studded with gems of every conceivable shade stood, unprotected, on a table in the middle of the room.
“What is this?”
“It is what you call in English a monstrance…”
“It was used by the priests in one of the old churches of Lisboa. The Count was a strong Catholic…” As he spoke I noticed a painting on the opposite wall with a title engraved on its frame. O Inferno. I approached it, fascinated by the maniacal faces of the demons, half-beast, half woman. One reminded me a little of my ex-wife. She was forcing what appeared to be a gold coin down the throat of a naked prostrate wretch. But what had been his crime – the greed of the wealthy, or the desperation of the poor sinner? The faces of the damned showed only resignation. Did Catholics believe in pre-destination? Or bad blood?
“Did the Count commission this painting?”
“No, this one was bought by Mr Smyth-Fortescue.”
“What happened to him after he sold the castle?”
“He went back to England where he was made bankrupt.” That word again. “Two years later he was sent to prison for, how do you say…deceiving?”
“Yes – fraud.”
The French doors of the third room were partly opened onto a veranda and the gardens behind. Either side of them stood two porcelain vases, three or four feet high.
“You see these vases with the lids on them?”
“They are from China, in the ‘Zing’ dynasty. You guess how much they are worth – in U.S. dollars.”
“Much more than that.”
“A hundred thousand?”
“Half a million dollars – each.” He stood looking proudly at one as though it was his personal property, in front of the two doors open to public gardens, shaded by trees, with no sign of any alarm or security system of any kind. It was almost touching.
“Did these belong to Mr Smyth-Fortescue?”
“Yes, he was a great collector of art.”
“What else do you know about him?”
“He was liked here in Portugal. He was very generous with his money when he was rich.”
“Too generous perhaps?”
From the café in the gardens I watched Pedro close the doors on his precious vases at five o’clock precisely. I won’t pretend the idea didn’t occur to me, for a few moments before the sun caught my face and I lay back to watch the girls walking past the first flowers of the spring. Tomorrow I would return to England, with just a suitcase and these bankruptcy papers. I pushed them to one side and pulled out the job application form, kindly forwarded by my ex, and began to write:
Name: David Smyth-Fortescue.