Praia da Luz, Algarve, Portugal is the setting for five (out of twenty chapters) in Rules of Engagement that I wrote between 2007 and 2009 and then published in 2010. However my history with Praia da Luz began forty years before I ever wrote Rules. The purpose of this blog post is to relate the uncanny events that occurred when I retreated to ‘Alec’s villa’ alone in 1978 for four weeks to write The Iberian Jaguar. Only much to my chagrin I was not alone in the villa.
At the time, my wife, son and I resided in Madrid, and Praia da Luz was our favorite destination for sunshine, flowers, sea and truly fabulous food. It was where our bilingual four-year-going-onto-five-year-old son played on the beach and conversed in Spanish with Portuguese playmates, and then sobbed when it was time to go to bed.
Luz always proved to be an elixir that made everything seem right, and it was also an excellent place to write, especially in February when the days are warm, the nights are cool, and the off-season are truly affordable. This is also a glorious time when almond blossoms color the foothills in pink and white, and in this setting I now planed to complete the novel Jaguar during a four-week retreat.
Already I had written the first 25,000 words, and I was very optimistic the story would be captivating. This was not a foolhardy plan. My first novel, The Signs of Destiny, was written in a solitary villa in the quiet Mediterranean village of Javea, Spain.
On the designated day, our family of three set off by car off from Madrid to Praia da Luz. It was a 802 kilometers/498 miles journey, so we brought supplies to occupy Alex, that included a drawing pad, crayons, puzzles, and an activity coloring book. We also stopped frequently, and kept our son occupied with spotting games, such as who could yell ‘toro’ first when we saw the frequent Osborne Black Bull Billboards that appeared everywhere on the highways and hillsides of Spain.
We arrived in Praia da Luz and moved into a townhouse for two nights. ‘Alec’s villa’ (in Rules) was currently occupied by the British Broadcasting Corporation and would not be available until February first. We already had a family itinerary: First were the morning trips into the foothills for lavender honeys from the bee man and whole grain, freshly baked bread from the bakery. Later, we would take lunch in Lagos. Afterwards, we planned a return to Luz for Alex’s play dates on the beach where he and his Portuguese friend spent fun-filled hours with Alex’s Tonka dump truck. At sunsets, we walked hand-in-hand along the shore and watched the local Portuguese fisherman returning with the catch of the day in their sturdy ocean boats with the all-seeing eyes painted on the prow. The time flew by as it always in Luz.
After two fun days, we moved into the villa. The layout was rectangular, where the front entranceway offered three destinations: Directly ahead were French doors leading to the open living room – dinning area with a large hearth; to the left was the kitchen; while to the right, an extensive passageway led to three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
My wife and I selected the bedroom at the end of the hallway (as did Alec) with the Hare Krishna Mantra written on the door and signed by George Harrison. The same Mantra also appeared on the bedroom door closest to where we would be sleeping.
After moving in we occupied the rest of the day watching Alex play on the beach. Afterward, we enjoyed a very early dinner in Portimão and returned to the villa before dark. The day was uneventful, Alex went to bed willingly, and my wife and I settled down to read novels before the warmth and fragrance of the hearth, as sadness crept stealthily into the living room — were going to miss one another.
Sometime around ten p.m., we heard cries and screams echoing through the hallway. We were there in seconds and found Alex sleeping. This was the boy who always needed reassurance when he awakened with fright. It was as if we imagined the screams and cries we heard.
We returned perplexed to the living room, until the screams and cries ruptured the silence in an hour or so, and once again our child was sleeping soundly when we entered the bedroom. There was no way we would leave Alex’s room, so we bedded for the night, and my wife whispered, “I don’t feel good about leaving you alone in this villa.”
The next morning over coffee, my wife looked concerned, “We could get our money back. You could return to Javea and write.”
“I’ll stay. If this didn’t chase the BBC away, it’s not going chase me away.
I drove my wife and son to Faro, where they would fly to Lisbon and connect to Madrid. They were returning to our warm apartment in Madrid, to Alex’s classes at the International Primary School, and to my wife’s assignment to decorate the corporate headquarters of a Fortune 500 Company, while I remained behind with work to be done and melancholy feelings of solitude.
After returning to the villa, I went for a long run through the picturesque foothills down to the Black Rock on the beach, and wonderful endorphins activated my body’s opiate receptors. The feelings of vulnerability vanished. Afterwards, I wrote for the rest of the afternoon, until loneliness overwhelmed me, and I escaped the villa for dinner in Portimão.
The villa was in total darkness when I returned and I admonished myself for not having left a light on in the foyer. This was not a big thing but I felt uneasy. I also did not feel like writing. So I read Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s entertaining novel, Tres Tristes Tiigres (I never read novels in English when I write since I instinctively adapt the cadence, rhythm and structure of what I’m reading. Not so in Spanish).
Occasionally I would look behind me toward to foyer, as if I expeced to see someone there. Several hours later the cold air from the hallway crept into the living room and settled about my neck with an uncanny ability to upset my thoughts. Then a dog began barking somewhere and the wind kicked up outside the villa.
It was definitely bedtime. I was missing my wife and small son when I turned off the lights in the living room and walked into the lighted foyer by the front door. Unexpectedly, I was feeling apprehensive about walking in front of the bedroom with the crying sounds. A moment later, I knew I was not alone. A sixth sense told me there was danger waiting in the hallway.
I flipped the hallway light switch but the lights failed to turn on. Strangely the hallway lights had worked before. Now, I faced the dilemma of whether or not to turn off the light in the front foyer. That option meant walking down the hallway in total darkness. The other option, of course, would be to leave the light on in the foyer and walk down a partially lighted hallway.
I stood unmoving before what was most certainly waiting for me in the hallway. With a sudden act of bravado I turned off the foyer light and walked slowly down the darkened hallway with my fist cocked, ready and admittedly ridiculously useless against a nonphysical being.
In a few moments, I reached the bedroom at the end of the hallway. My adrenalin was rushing, as I switched on the ceiling light, which fortunately worked. I could see nothing, however I was certain something supernatural waited vey near to where I was standing. Moments later I perceived the presence was a female wo exhibited a growing repugnance for my intrusion.
“Hey, I have the right to be here and I’m not leaving!”
Somehow I perceived I had just worsened my situation. It was uncanny how I knew she was becoming angrier by the moment.
I faced where I sensed she was and removed my clothes. Then I tossed them onto the adjoining bed. Somehow I knew I was steadily infuriating the presence. I could feel her anger swelling when I turned off the light and climbed into the cold sheets.
I was certain something would happen. Nothing did. I put my hands behind my head and waited. I continued to wait until I perceived she had left. For the moment I felt safe.
Minutes later, I sensed her return to the room and I tried to mentally reach out to her, “Why?” I asked. But she was already gone.
Suddenly all the villa’s storm shutters on every window and door began slamming back and forth against the outside wall. They shook for three or four minutes. Then a respite of silence followed until the three bathroom toilets all flushed at the same time. At that point, silence ensued.
The following morning, I went to Lagos for espresso coffee, a croissant and a visit with the real estate agent, where I learned nothing untoward had ever occurred at the villa. There was no recorded sinister history with the villa nor in the in the surrounding countryside. Also, no tenants reported manifestations of a supernatural origin. Then the agent raised her eyebrows and smiled with cynicism. Assuredly, I was quickly becoming the eccentric American writer.
I returned to the villa and found Maria — the combination cook and housekeeper– in the kitchen. We communicated — she in Portuguese and I in Spanish — and I left with an extensive shopping list of items to buy in the Lagos central market. I now knew I would have caldo verde for lunch, and pan-fried chicken, acelgas, roast potatoes and salad for dinner.
It was a good moment to relate my spooky experience to Maria who listened seriously, and replied, “Senhor, será sonámbula.”
In English, sonámbula is a female sleepwalker. This was the only explanation I ever received for what became a nightly occurrence that never failed to frighten me. I also refused to discuss the issue further lest I be perceived as a kook.
My posture with the presence was adamantly inflexible. There was no way she might scare me off! Of course, this was false bravado. Besides frightening me at night, I frequently sensed her nearby when I was writing. I had given up being angry, I was now terror-stricken when I felt her close to me. A vivid imagination is a weird faculty when I considered the downside of my predicament. I seriously suspected the spirit might try to possess me. Admittedly, I had read novels and watched movies that related the horror of malevolent forces. The only good in such evil was to escape, which I had no intention of doing.
Strangely, my writing was prolific. It was amazing how focused my mind became when I seriously doubted I would survive the expiration of the lease. My fear was worsened by her uncanny habit of scaring me when I least expected. The only antidote during the day was to run while at night there was no escape to run.
As an experiment, I befriended the small dog that seemed to be always hanging around the villa. I needed a companion desperately so I fed him and invited him into the villa. Later, the little dog accompanied me to the bedroom. It felt good to have him there, and I read in bed while he slept contentedly beside me. It was cozy and comforting… until the presence began her nightly routine of slamming shutters and flushing toilets. At once, the little dog went berzerk and nearly clawed apart the door to escape. Afterwards, he only returned briefly during the daylight hours and refused to enter the villa.
The writing was the most creative and original work I have ever done. Maybe I wanted to leave something behind if I failed to survive. I came to the villa with a goal and I would not be deterred form achieving it. It’s incredible how focused I became until the day I left the villa and headed back to Madrid. I’m ashamed to admit that I shouted every obscenity I could think of at the presence in both English and Spanish. Then I climbed into the car and returned to Madrid with my completed novel and my life.
Oddly, it never occurred to me that her nightly scare tactics, the ability to imitate my son’s cries and the capability to cut the power to the hallway light at night were the sum total and extent of her powers. I always awaited the sinister encore, but it never came. It was impossible for me to imagine she might have had an ulterior motive. Truthfully, I was frightened and fearful of her. If she desired my attention, she might have better gotten it by hitting me in the head with a hammer. She didn’t have a ghost of a chance to get through to me.
Almost exactly one year later, my wife, Alex and I would suddenly be flying from Madrid to Boston for Alex’s treatment in Dana Farber Cancer Center and Boston’s Children’s Hospital. Alex was diagnosed for Burkett’s Lymphoma. At the time, early detection was the only hope of survival from this insidious lymphoma.