Public Spaces: 'The Beach' by Susana Moreira Marques

Public Spaces are contested sites, places that are inscribed and then re-inscribed by history, experience, memory, power. For issue 34, TLB asked four writers to tell us about a space that, for whatever reason, is meaningful to them as a site of resistance or empowerment.

The beach, in those days, had no surfers, no swimmers, no tourists, no cafés with lounge chairs and music, no luxury flats, no smooth sidewalks, no runners.

We go to public places to see and be seen, but in those days maybe I wasn’t aware of the people around me, the movements and expressions of strangers, their looks as they looked at me.

I spent part of my childhood and teenage years in a town with a large port, constantly filled with containers of metallic red, blue or yellow. There was also a lot of fishing, and many factories still produced canned sardines, tuna, mackerel.

I went to a public school. It was a large, sober, impersonal building, built during the period of the dictatorship. In its grounds, kids could run fast and free, play, date, pretend to smoke. And there we could all mix—though it rarely happened. Middle-class kids, the children of doctors, engineers and lawyers, would stick together. The poorer kids, many the sons and daughters of fishermen, did the same. I was never invited to play at a fisherman’s family house.

I have a vague memory of one thin kid with a pretty but tired face, the kind of face that never seemed to truly transform with laughter. I remember the whispers that went round about how he must find it hard to do his homework because his parents couldn’t help him and were often absent, that in the house there wasn’t even a decent table for him to work on.

Perhaps I remember him because of his weary, adult-like face, which I guess means I must have had been paying some attention after all.

A jogger runs past. A grandfather leads his granddaughter to the small playground on the sand. Young people sit outside a café with their laptops. A girl walks alone looking at her phone.

It’s spring. No one is sunbathing but the beach walkway is full. People rarely stop at the far end of the beach to look at the four statues standing there: two women raise their hands to the sky; one child carries a toddler; a third woman kneels in the sand.

On 1st December 1947, 103 fishing boats left the port. The weather changed quickly. In the evening, the fishermen were still at sea. Their wives and children—as well as their neighbours, other fisherman, friends and curious people—started to come down to the beach, hoping for a glimpse of a boat making its entry back to the port. They stayed camped on the beach throughout the night, the women anticipating disaster, holding their youngest tight. On 2nd December 1947, the news arrived of a large-scale disappearance: four boats had sunk and 152 men died, leaving behind around seventy widowers, and more than a hundred orphans.

The statues were put up not that many years ago, and it was as I was walking casually at the beach, one day, that I saw for the first time the four figures, and learned of the disaster, and realised that my colleagues from school might have had photos of lost grandfathers at home. I sat for quite some time by the figure of the kneeling woman.

In those days, I hid in plain sight on the beach, kissing my first love. It was an empty, polluted beach with no history and few visitors. It was ugly, ending abruptly in a grey quay, behind the silhouette of the industrial port. But, viewed from afar, it seemed beautiful—a long, white, sandy beach—and in those days, I could maintain a distance, an illusion, even as I approached it, for this was before a series of small tragedies had changed me, before I became attuned to the presence of people crossing my path in public spaces, including ghosts.

Read the other three pieces in this series—by Simona Castrium, Chloe Reeson, and Peter Polites—in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.

Susana Moreira Marques is a writer and journalist living in Lisbon. She is the author of Now and at the Hour of our Death.