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 its 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 by five or six, small tousle-haired urchins, aged around 6 or 7.
Their leader was a cherubic 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, Feliz Natal’ 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, took up a solo and sang in a voice so clear and pitched so high that one felt stripped and shriven of all sin.
As she sang, the others watched her with solemn eyes, lips pursed, ready to enter the chorus. Their heads seemed disembodied, floating in the night 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 thick slices of 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 Iberian moon pinned against the black night sky.
Feliz Natal os meus amigos.