If freedom is red

Date: 22nd April 1974

At school we learn what matters. And we stand up to talk about it. To repeat. Over and over. After each other or all together, “God, State, Family”. What matters. Over and over. Standing in our identical white gowns. Looking at the crucifix carefully placed above the black board. Right beside is a photo of Salazar, looking at us.

“It is never too much to remember, children”, Miss Ana says.

The bell rings and we all want to leave. My heart jumps with excitement. I want to run to my mother’s kiosk. But I can’t. The corridors are full of signs. “No running!” in red. And when it is in red, we must obey.


Date: 22nd April 1974

I run my way around my mother’s kiosk, my hands touching all the flowers they reach. I want to have their smell on me. It is so good! They are separated by colours. White, yellow, red. Resting on silver and dark green buckets. Balancing on the low ceiling or steady on the floor. Then I join my hands and put them to my nose, breathing in over and over. Until there is no smell left. And I have to do it again. I do not touch roses though, Mother says they sting. The thought always makes me wince. “Why did you call me Rosa then?”, I want to ask, but I don’t. I play with carnations instead. I like to play with flowers. I want to talk to them, but there are three or four people less than a mile away. Out of the cafe comes Dona Joana, she walks fast towards us. “Don’t you have homework to do, dear Rosa?”, she says with a tight smile, looking at my mother. I cross my arms and hide inside, right behind the popular vases of rosemary. I know how this goes. Next thing she is asking me about little boyfriends. Not today. From where I stand, I can hear every whisper.

“Did you know about Jose’s daughter?”

“No, I did not! Poor man, he does not deserve such disgrace!”

“Losing his wife and now this… that house of his must be a torment every time. She is never there to take care of it. The other day at the grocery shop…”

“HEY YOU!”- a male voice shouts.

Dona Joana jumps and stops talking. The carnation falls from her shaking hands. “I am sorry”, she says “So sorry. I have to go”.

I come closer to the door. My mother stops staring and pushes me inside. Still, I can hear him addressing the group, “What do you think you’re doing?! Talking? Disperse. NOW. Or do you want to go to jail? You do? Come here you! Was the conversation good? Huh? You think you’re smart? Lie down, you’re under arrest. Conspiracy against the state”.

Through the flowers, I start approaching the entrance. The carnation still on the floor. I see Dona Joana walking fast, faster than before. A young man being hand-cuffed. The others disappeared.

“Rosa, stop staring! Come here, back inside”, my mother admonishes half-whispering. I catch the flower, and hold the poor carnation as a baby, “It’s alright”, I whisper, “everything is going to be alright”. Before putting it back in its vase.


Date: 22nd April 1974

We’re sitting at the table. Dinner is yesterday’s bread and cheese again, but I like cheese. I don’t complain, it is not a smelly one. I don’t like the smelly ones at all. So, I sit very straight and wait for my turn. Mother is serving Father when she starts telling him about what happened, “Joana went to the kiosk today”

“Oh yeah, did she buy something?”, Father asks.

“No”, Mother says almost offended, “they do not have much money lately. You know that”.

No response from Father. I can tell he is not interested from the frowning in his upper lip. His moustache rising a little. It always makes me laugh, but I don’t. Father is keen on silence.

When Mother sits, we join our hands to pray and be grateful. I am grateful for the cheese.

“Apparently Jose’s daughter, the one that works for The Minister, had an affair with someone from… PIDE”, Mother whispers the last word and then continues, “poor Jose, maybe you could talk to him…”


“Jose! From the restaurant!”, she says and then sighs, “Never mind”.

Father looks at her, confused. Crumbs stick in his moustache, moving every time he breathes in and out.

“You should be careful, woman. Those conversations near the kiosk, so near the Council… You could get into trouble… And then what will become of us, uh?”, Father reaches for her hand.

“Another youngster was arrested today.”

“And more will be. These young people do not know how priceless freedom is. They prefer to talk…”, Father stands up to turn on the radio, “…and do those secret reunions of theirs. But PIDE… it is everywhere. And where PIDE is, so is evil. I hope you understand that, Rosa”, he says a bit louder.

I nod quickly, in silence. Mother makes the sign of the cross and Father finishes, “God save us from talking about this matter again”.


Date: 23rd April 1974

“Alright children, let’s start… Hail Mary, full of Grace,

The Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou among women,

and blessed is the fruit

of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, mother of God,

pray for us sinners

Now and at the hour of our death.


We finish with the sign of the cross. Miss Ana looks at all of us. Her yellowish hair and blue eyes look less angelic when we use the wrong hand- the hand of the devil. Today, everyone is “Good boys and girls”. I try to keep my mischievousness quiet. No talking. No running in the corridors. No using the wrong hand. But Pedro doesn’t. He is always being called to put both hands in front of him and count out loud. I fear that, the 30 centimetres ruler made of wood. The slashing sound. The painful cries echo in the high ceiling of the classroom. And the marks are bright red.


Date: 23rd April 1974

I’m at the kitchen with Mother singing the song from the radio, when Father arrives. Mother peels the potatoes, I put them in water and Father brings chicken. “Smells good already”. Mother smiles. She always smiles when we compliment her food.

“Rosa, can you get the carrots from the table?”

I jump from the chair and take them. Slowly, with both hands.

“Don’t let them fall!”, mother shouts behind me. And I tremble a bit. It is heavy and without realising the tablecloth gets stuck between my fingers. My diary falls. Father picks it up, “What’s this?”

Between putting the potatoes and the carrots in the pot, Mother looks up to see, “Oh it’s Rosa’s diary. It was a Christmas present, remember? So that she could practice her handwriting. You’ve been practicing, haven’t you?”

I nod very fast. Father opens it and starts flipping its pages, carefully. His moustache is not up. He is interested and inside I beam. “I am writing a story”.

“I can see…”

“A story?”, Mother asks, “what about?”

“About the flowers and the kiosk and…”

“Us”, Father interrupts, “She is writing about School and look!”, he stands up to show it to Mother.

“She wrote about the incident. And the punishments.”

Suddenly, I am not sure what Father is thinking. Mother is usually easier to read. But she seems worried. About my story! I try to think about what I wrote before. Did I let my mischievousness out? I thought I was careful… I am ready to say this when Father takes me by both arms, shaking me. I remember the man being cuffed and Pedro. Father has never beaten me before. But I wonder if I will be able to be quiet and not defend myself or say I am sorry, if he does.

“Rosa, listen to me. You can not write these down! It is dangerous! If someone knows… we might go to jail!”


“Because it is against the Council! We have to be grateful! If it wasn’t for the regime, the country would still be in a crisis. Porra, we wouldn’t be able to eat chicken today.”

“Isn’t that good?”

Father looks at Mother before telling me, “It is… It could be much worse. We just have to be grateful for what we have.”

I think for a moment, everyone seems more relaxed. Yet, they still look for some kind of sign. This is supposed to be a lesson, they need to know I understood.

“Then, why can’t I write about it?”

“Jesus, why don’t you focus on writing down all the rivers and the train rails… this-” he holds the diary now, right in front of my nose, “-can cost our freedom! And God knows what else.”

This time, I make the sign of the cross. Without intending to, tears start rolling down my face. Mother intervenes, hugging me tight, while pressing my front head to her belly. Her hands rest in the hair above my ears. But I can still hear her whispering, “You can’t blame her for not knowing what freedom is.”


Date: 24th April 1974

Again, we stand. Today lined up. A river for each.

Tagus”, Pedro says.

“Douro”, Maria almost shouts.

“Guadiana”, I state.

“Minho”, Joao risks.

“Mondego”, Francisco announces.

“Vouga”, Sara finishes.

“Good. And… Pedro, can you tell me which ones have their source in Spain?”

Pedro looks around, as if looking for some inspiration. I want to whisper, but I don’t. I could, but I keep it inside. My mischievousness.

“I am waiting”, Miss Ana pressures.

Douro, Tagus… uh… Mondego?”

“Come to the front. Hands turned to God”

He walks slowly to its place, right under the crucifix. Together, we pray for him.


Date: 24th April 1974

It is past eleven, almost midnight. My mother sits on our rocking chair, eyes closed. But I know she is not asleep. The radio keeps playing the last soap of the day in low volume. I can never understand what this one is about. Mother says it is because I am too little, “that is why they stream it so late”. And perhaps, I am. I know it has horses and chickens. I can hear them! But how can they have horses on the radio? Do they record them first? Do they go and record the soap on a farm? Oh, maybe it’s in the market. Every Sunday there is one near the kiosk. Mother goes there with the flowers. But I only go to see the animals. I’ll pay attention next weekend. DO NOT FORGET.

I look at my diary after writing the last sentences. Father didn’t take it from me but I think I shouldn’t write anymore. About… real life. So today I am only writing about what we learned in school, and my mother’s sleeping mode while listening to a narrative with horses and chickens.

The soap ends, a song starts. it is five to. Another follows. I recognise his voice. Zeca Afonso. He sings, ‘Grândola, vila morena…’. Mother suddenly opens her eyes. They land directly on me. ‘Land of fraternity…’. “Time to go to bed”, Mother says in a rush. ‘It’s the people who lead…’, she stands up.

“Go on. I’ll go right after you”

I quickly walk to the bedroom. Mother following me. The song continues, ‘inside you, oh city…’

“And say your prayers! At least tonight…”, she adds kissing my forehead and leaving, not closing the door entirely. In the dark, I whisper,

“Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I awake

I pray the Lord my soul will take.”

But I know she is not going to sleep. Through the door I can see, the kitchen light is still on. So is the radio.


Date: 25th April 1974

Father and Mother are in the kitchen. Static. Their eyes look huge, as if they’re surprised. I say “Good-morning” and kiss their cheeks, but they barely notice it. “What’s going on?”, I want to ask but I don’t dare. The radio is on already, but there is no song. Only someone talking and talking and talking. They say schools are closed and that catches my attention. I look at them, can I have a happy reaction? I study their faces again. Mother has a tight smile, I realise now that she probably hasn’t slept yet. Father is harder. His expression is one of concern, but his eyes look… hopeful.

“Are we expecting rain?”, I finally ask.

Rain is good for Mother’s flowers, Father listens to the news every morning and complains about the weather. Every morning. Then he leaves with a loaf of bread in his hand, another in his textile bag for lunch and bangs the door. “It was the wind”, he shrugs when Mother admonishes him. Which means every evening.

They both look at me, probably realising for the first time that I am awake. Mother kisses my head and prepares me breakfast. Father informs he is not going to work today, instead he is going with us.

“The kiosk is too close. When something goes wrong…”

“When?”, Mother asks, “What if it doesn’t?”

“Get your high hopes down, woman. And I am going with you! End of story.”


Date: 25th April 1974

We’re on our way to the kiosk. Soldiers go up and down Rua do Carmo.

We enter Jose’s restaurant. We’re safer there, Father believes. I look outside. There are long white sheets saying ‘FREEDOM’ in red. There are war tanks and soldiers talking to microphones. They are all facing towards the Council. We can hear everything inside. They give them time to surrender. Otherwise, no mercy. A soldier comes and tells everyone to stay away from the windows. But some people like Father go outside. And I want to! I want to tell Mother I won’t cry. I will be always holding Father’s hand. I won’t try to get even closer nor run away! But Mother is tense, everyone is. Hoping. And waiting. A soldier enters the restaurant.

Mother is bold and asks them, “What’s going on? What are you doing here?”

“Marcelo Caetano is there,” he points to the Council front.

“Have you been here for a long time?”

“Since 3 am. Actually, senhora… Do you have a cigarette?”

If Father was here his upper lip would probably lift, but he is not. And I admire Mother.

“I am sorry… I don’t. Everything is closed…”

“But we have these flowers,” Jose’s daughter interrupts and takes one from a bouquet on the closest table.

The soldier kindly accepts it. Mother fetches all the carnations she sold to the restaurant- no rain, no flowers- and gives them to everyone near us. The soldier takes a few more outside.

The door to the balcony finally opens. The silence is heavy. Just like in the classroom, we look at them. And they look at us. A decision was made. Portugal is free. The soldiers jump from the tanks. Joy is expressed in every face and gesture. Everywhere I look it is all I can see.

Some kiss the soldiers, others put the flowers in their guns. Everyone celebrates. Father is finally able to reach us. He kisses both of us and there is an unmistakable smile under his moustache, “No blood! Can you believe it?!”

I run outside. Mother catches me by the wrist. “Where do you think you’re going, minha menina?”

“Isn’t this Freedom?”, I ask pointing at the hand-painted signs. Father laughs. Mother lets go of my wrist. And I go. To help giving away the flowers. A soldier picks me up. Laughing like a crazy lunatic. I give him a carnation. He places it on the gun. Just like the rest. Freedom is red. And when it is in red, everyone must obey. It means I can run.