The Cheese by Robert Steward

Lisbon, Portugal 2003. The delicatessen in Bairro Alto seemed more modern than the other shops in the neighbourhood. It looked more stylish, better kept. On one side of the glass counter was a wide selection of cured hams, cheeses and fresh olives, and on the other, an assortment of pastries, tarts and cakes. The wooden cabinets around the shop were filled with packets, tins, jars, bottles, and they all had handwritten labels like biscoitos, tomates, atum, vinho, and sitting on top of the counter was a basket full of fresh bread.

“Olá.” The young shop assistant smiled.

“Olá.” I smiled back. “Cem gramas de presunto curado, se faz favor.”

She took a joint of cured ham and put it against the slicing machine. The blade whirled round, and the thin slices fell off the joint effortlessly onto the waxed paper.

“Ok?” she asked.

“Sim.” I nodded.

“Algo mais?”

“Sim, dois pão.”

“Estes?” she asked, picking up the bread rolls in the basket.

“Sim, e este queijo.” I pointed to the cheese behind the glass counter.

The shop assistant took the round white cheese, wrapped it in some waxed paper and put it in a paper bag.

“Isso é tudo?” she asked, wiping her hands on her white apron.

“Sim, é tudo.”

She added up the total on a large till.

“Cinco euros, se faz favor,” she said.

I gave her a five-euro note.

“Obrigado.” She smiled.

“Até logo.” I waved and left the shop.

I walked up Rua da Rosa with my bag of shopping. The sky was a light blue colour, and the azulejo tiles on the buildings had slightly different colours, different shades of blue. I liked to watch them glisten. I liked their reflection, their appearance. I liked the way they were always different. Halfway up the hill stood my apartment building. It was easy to recognise with its yellow facade, wrought iron balconies and a dark green door. I took out my keys and let myself in.

Climbing the steep wooden stairs to the fourth floor, I thought about how long it would take to find a proper job. All I had since September were six measly hours per week at Berlitz. Apart from looking for teaching positions, I whiled away my time in the British Council library, pretending to be one of their teachers. It gave me something to do and stopped me from freezing to death, as winter in Portugal is colder than you might think.

At the top of the stairs I opened the apartment door, revealing a rickety interior. Despite the great location, my apartment lacked a great deal in luxury. There was no heating of any kind, and in winter it was so damp you could see your own breath. I won’t mention what effect this had in the toilet! It was draughty too, especially where my landlord had replaced a broken window pane with his chest x-ray. But I liked it. It was quaint. It had character.

I put my shopping bag on the table and my jacket on the back of one of the chairs. The floorboards creaked with every footstep. There was no sign of my landlord in the apartment. He was probably playing cards like the other retired men on the green in Praça do Príncipe Real.

I stepped into the garish pink bathroom to wash my hands. My landlord said it was a royal colour, but I think he chose pink because it was cheap. I can’t remember now what made me offer to paint the bathroom. Maybe because it was in such a state. The washbasin was tiny with green drip marks below the taps, above it an old mirror. As I washed my hands, I caught the dreaded washing machine in its reflection. It used to scare the life out of me. Whenever I did the washing, I would gingerly poke the on button with a wooden spoon from outside the bathroom and more often than not, there would be a loud bang, and the electrics would fuse, leaving me in complete darkness and in a state of terror.

Back in the kitchen, I opened the fridge door. It was mainly filled with my landlord’s food, sealed in plastic containers. I was always curious to know what was inside them. Probably salt cod or sardines or fish cheeks. He liked fish. With his white hair and tanned face, I remember him scooping the eyes out of a Sea Bream with a teaspoon saying: “Why are you looking at me like that, Robby, this is the best part?”

My side of the fridge was meagre in comparison, just some milk, butter, peach jam and a large red tomato. I took the tomato and washed it under the tap. Then, I chopped it into triangular pieces, scraped them into a dish and sprinkled some course sea salt over them. The salt cellar made a sifting sound like a shaking maraca. Squeezing half a lemon over the salad gave it a sharp, acidic taste. I took the fresh bread rolls out of the shopping bag and placed them on a plate, giving them a little squeeze. Next, was the cured ham. The cheese was the last to be brought out as if it had a special billing. The smell assaulted my senses. Like bad feet. I sat down at the old wooden table and paused for a moment to check everything was in its place: bread, ham, cheese, tomatoes, and with the great sense of anticipation you only get when you’re hungry, I peeled the thin crust off the cheese with a small knife and started to tuck in. The cheese was soft and mild. It tasted ripe. Without a watchful eye to reprimand me, my boas manieras da mesa went right out of the window, and in the words of Dickens, I fell upon it tooth and nail. I tore at the bread roll, forked the tomatoes, wiped the juice from my chin. I munched, I chewed, I slurped. It was a massacre. But as I went to cut off another piece of cheese, I noticed that something was amiss. Crawling out of the cheese in every direction was a myriad of small, white, translucent maggots.

“What the..?” I cried, leaping out of the chair.

There are some strange things that happen to you in life, which over time you start to doubt whether they ever happened or not. And this is one of them. For, not only were the maggots wriggling out of the cheese, but some of them actually started jumping into the air. Ping! Ping! Ping! I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like a flea circus.

Then I remembered something my Italian cousin once told me. Wasn’t there a Sardinian cheese made with maggots? What was it called again? Casu something, Casu Marzo. Yeah, that was it, I convinced myself—makes the cheese softer.

I looked upon the scene in disbelief. Some of the maggots had actually managed to crawl to the edge of the table.

What shall I do? I thought. What shall I do?

The bar looked out onto the narrow cobblestone street. Rua da Rosa seemed different at night. It was livelier, more sinister. The old-fashioned street lamps shone down onto the people drinking outside. Inside, was the gentle hum of conversation and the sweet sounds of bossa nova. On the walls hung black and white photographs of jazz musicians, and from the ceiling an old chandelier.

Rute sat opposite me in the bar, playing with her dark curly hair. She wore a black top and the earrings I bought for her birthday. Her thick, black rimmed glasses made her look cool, but at the same time studious, and her dark chocolate eyes glistened in the candlelight.

“And then what happened?” she asked, taking her glass of beer from the table.

“I ate it,” I replied, feeling proud of myself.

“You ate it?” Her glass stood suspended just below her lips.

This wasn’t the reaction I was expecting.

“Well,” I hesitated. “I thought it was a Portuguese delicacy.”

Maggots?” She put her glass down.

“I only ate the cheese part,” I said in my defence.

“And what did you do with the maggots?” Her eyes narrowed.

She wouldn’t let it go.

“I, er, squashed them—with a wooden spoon.”

“Oh my God!” She hugged herself. “But where did you get it from?”

“The deli around the corner.”

“The deli around the corner?” she said with her face screwed up. “But Robby, I don’t think they even sell that kind of cheese there—are you sure it hadn’t just gone bad?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, shifting uncomfortably in my seat.

I started to feel hot and uneasy. Then the image of the maggots came back to me. Small, white, translucent maggots, crawling, crawling, crawling.

Robert Steward teaches English as a foreign language and lives in London. He is currently writing a collection of short stories some of which have appeared in Scrittura, The Creative Truth, The Ink Pantry, Winamop, The Foliate Oak, Communicators League, Adelaide, Down in the Dirt and The Stray Branch. You can find them at: