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Marionette

This is a true story.

When I was young my parents took me on holiday to Portugal. I don't remember much of it, but there's one thing that has always stuck with me.

In the Old Town region of Albufeira there's a public square, a courtyard ringed by shops and restaurants. By day it's all noise and colour; Portuguese men dressed like Native Americans bang drums and blow into carved wooden flutes, hocking CDs of their music to cash-rich tourists. Street artists create alien worlds out of spray paint on stiff sheets of cardboard (I still have mine, somewhere, it's two purple suns forever threatening to set over a cracked white spire). One day a saxophonist stood amongst the others, his bald scalp burning in the sun and his moustache drooping over his mouth, playing blues into the perfect sky. I never saw him again until years later, but we'll get to that.

The one person that really stuck with me over the years was the puppet man. He would appear in late afternoon, largely ignored by the tourists as he trotted out worn-out marionettes with Punch and Judy faces, or wizened wizards in tattered robes. He played to the children, making them laugh, shilling for coin from beleaguered parents. While the sun was out he was nobody.

At night the square changed. The noise and bluster left as the families went home and the drunkards moved on to the Strip and the bars and clubs it had to offer The scorching sun departed and the restaurants cast flickering candle-light out over the cobbles. The other performers left for home; only the puppeteer remained.

By night his act changed. He packed away the wizard and clowns and opened the large trunk that he had been standing on the whole time. Out came an ancient turntable, and the other puppets, and the real magic.

The first was a wrinkled old man with white hair and a worn tux, seated at a miniature piano. The puppet man set him on the floor, cranked up the turntable, and went to work. It was like the puppet came to life at the end of his strings, his hands soaring over the keys as one of Brahms' symphonies swelled out of the speakers on the turntable. I swore at the time that I could see his fingers moving, striking the keys in perfect time with the music.

Next out of the chest was a small man in sunglasses and a waistcoat, tarnished trumpet raised to his lips and Miles Davis in the speakers. Then a cellist, and Bach's unaccompanied suites. All were stunning, but none were the lady in the red dress.

Her skin was dark, her hair a wave of midnight, and she sang Ella Fitzgerald as though her life depended on it. Her Fever gave us chills, and it was easy to forget that she was sixteen inches tall and guided by strings. She smouldered under our eyes, and even my seven-year-old self felt the charge in the air when she was done.

We came back each night to watch the marionettes, and on the day we left I asked my father to buy me a puppet to take home. We found a small shop down a side-street, where the air was filled with puppets hanging from anything that would hold them, and I left with a knight on four strings. As we walked away I turned back for one last glimpse, and caught sight of the puppeteer from the square peering out of the window high above the shop. We left Portugal, and I returned to England with the puppet and a desire to teach him to slay dragons.

Years passed. I forgot all about Portugal, apart from on the odd occasion when I found my cardboard landscape on top of a wardrobe or stuffed behind a bookcase, still waiting to be framed. I've no idea what happened to my knight.

When I was twenty-one I went back to Albufeira, my first holiday with my then-girlfriend. Not much had changed; the cliff that my childhood hotel had stood on had crumbled into the sea, and the square in the Old Town was paved insted of cobbled, but everything else was the same. The same flute bands, the same spray-artists, and the same puppet man with the same puppets.

Well, mostly the same.

He didn't seem to have aged at all, though the puppets were showing signs of wear. The first night we were there we missed the beginning of his show, but we saw Ella and I decided to come back the next night. I wanted to see if the pianist's fingers still moved.

We got to the square early, had a bite to eat in one of the restaurants and watched the sky darken and the square empty until only the puppet man was left. I dragged Sophie out of the restaurant and took a seat on the warm concrete in front of him. I was seven all over again.

"Just watch," I said to Sophie. "This is amazing."

The chest opened, but the pianist wasn't the first out of the box. The first thing I saw was a sunburned scalp, then a heavy grey moustache.

"Sax," I said, and Sophie frowned at me. I knew I wouldn't be wrong, and I wasn't.

The sax shone bronze in the dm evening light, and I found myself humming along to sections of the solo even though it wasn't any piece of music I could be expected to know.

"How are you doing that?" Sophie asked when she heard me.

"I've heard it before," was all I said. "A long time ago."

We stayed for the whole performance, but I couldn't enjoy it. Ella still gave me the chills, but the reason had changed. I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong, didn't want to give voice to what I knew I suspected – it was too ridiculous. Still, it didn't feel right.

I slept fitfully, and the next day I left Sophie by the hotel pool and ventured into town on my own in search of answers. Not that I knew what kind of answers I wanted, or where to look for them.

I headed to the square, but this early in the morning there was nobody around. Even the flute bands hadn't set up yet, and the restaurant windows were dark and filled with stacks of tables and chairs. The puppeteer wouldn't be here for hours yet.
I was anxious, too full of nervous energy to wait for him. I had a hunch I knew where I would find him, so I wandered.

I moved away from the square, trying to find the shop where I had bought my knight. Eventually I saw something I remembered from my childhood, a battered red box selling stamps mounted on a wall opposite an ice cream parlour. It touched something in my memory, and I turned down the next side street.

There it was, opposite a dark window displaying broken rocks with crystals studded inside them. The window was dark, and the still faces of a thousand puppets stared out at me through the gloom inside. I tried the door. It didn't budge.

I followed the street past another couple of shops and turned right down a tight alley. I picked my way past overflowing bins and a sleeping tramp who snorted as I stepped over him. A cat was sniffing at his hair.

When I emerged I found myself in a weed-choked courtyard at the back of the shops. It was dark and cool and the bare earth felt spongy underfoot. I guessed it didn't get much sunlight, surrounded as it was by tall buildings.

A steep flight of steps was set into the stone of the buildings, rising up to a narrow walkway with no rail. I climbed with care, dodging the steps where the stone was crumbling.

The walkway ran in front of four small doors set back in the wall, each one with a tiny panel of glass next to it. I peered through each until I found the one I was looking for.

The puppeteer sat at a low table in some kind of workshop, his back to the window. He was hunched over, barely moving at all, and I could make out a red form on the woktop in front of him. Ella, I guessed.

To his left the pianist sat slumped over his piano, his strings spread out around him. At the back of the table more puppets sat against the wall. Nothing moved, except the puppeteer. I couldn't see the saxophonist anywhere.

I watched for a long time as he tended to Ella. Eventually he set he on the table and pulled the pianist towards him, lifted the wooden crosspiece that held the strings and started plucking at them with some kind of tool. He was absorbed in his work, tightening strings here and there and stitching clothes when they needed it.

It was only when I felt the heat of the sun touch the top of my head that I realised how long I must have been standing there peering into the workshop. Reluctantly i left my vigil and went back down the stairs. The tramp was still lying in the alley, awake now. The cat was gone. He stared at me as I stepped over his legs, and I ignored him.

I made my way back to the hotel. I wish I could tell you about the revelation I had on my way back, the sudden realisation about what was happening that sent me running back to the courtyard. I wish I could tell you about how I caught the puppeteer as he was leaving the shop, about the confrontation where I forced him to reveal his secrets.

I can't. I said this was a true story, and it is. I went back to the hotel and flew home, and all I had was a fading tan and the conviction that I had seen tiny fingers moving across tiny keys, many years ago, and that I had glimpsed something that I would never be able to fully understand.

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