Manuela and Ludgero, out of the world

In October 2013, the bodies of Manuela and Ludgero Matias were found by the police. They were lying in bed, being dead for 18 days. Suicide came after years of isolation. It looked like a simple story.

Maria José Oliveira

Translation by Paulo Montes

February 2014

Manuela and Ludgero look at each other smiling. He was wearing a suit and tie; she was in a dress. The photo is a few years old and is on a trestle next to the two closed caskets, at the cemetery of Camarate. The few neighbors who attended the funeral can hardly recognize Manuela and Ludgero of 4C in that picture and with those smiles.

For some years now, Maria Manuela Matias and Ludgero Henriques Pinto Matias were living in a tower with 15 floors and 90 apartments which stands out because of its height, among the chaotic cluster of buildings in Santo António dos Cavaleiros, outside Lisbon. They knew only a few of their neighbors in the building in António Nobre Square, but after the tragedy, they all got to know their names.

Last year, on October 2nd, neighbor Elizabete Vieira, of apartment 6B, called the PSP police. Something strange had happened in apartment 4C. For a few days, the residents of floors 4, 5, 6 and 7 had been complaining about a strong stench in the building’s hallways. The smell wouldn’t wear off. Conceição Félix, the lady who has been cleaning the building for 19 years, every day of the week, from 11.00 to 18.00, concluded that the odor couldn’t come from some unwary resident’s garbage. Together with Elizabete, she put in motion an idea from the neighbor in 4F: she tied a dog leash to a medium-sized mirror and rolled it down to the window of Manuela and Ludgero’s room, which had been open for more than two weeks, with the faded orange curtains hanging out. When the mirror landed on the ledge, Conceição and Elizabete, two floors above, couldn’t see anything inside the room, but they noticed the flies that came out and the intense odor of “rotten flesh”.

Both PSP officers who rushed to the 4th floor had no doubt about what they’d find inside Manuela and Ludgero’s apartment. The same happened with the Loures Fire Department team that even before opening the door, put masks and gloves on, despite knowing the smell would stay in their uniforms for many hours. Conceição, Elizabete and a few other neighbors awaited the result of the firefighters’ intervention. It was Wednesday, and in the middle of the afternoon, there were few people in the building. Inside the house, with two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and a small balcony, everything was intact and clean. In the hall there was a closed suitcase; on the kitchen table, a paper with notes about medication schedules and doses, alongside some pills of different colors, carefully placed on a sheet of absorbent paper. When the firefighters entered the bedroom and saw Manuela and Ludgero lying in bed, they didn’t go any further, proceeding according to safety standards: to preserve the site from any contamination until the arrival of the Forensics Police. After the collection of data, they would then order the transportation of the bodies to Lisbon’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, where they would be autopsied.

On the bed, uncovered, Manuela and Ludgero were unrecognizable: their bodies swollen, black, and covered with maggots. They had been there for more than two weeks, maybe since Saturday, September 14th, the day when Manuela asked some friends, Paulo Melo and Sandra Cruz, to stay with her dog, Dusty, until the following Wednesday because she was going to spend a few days at her brother’s house. Manuela, lying on her back, wore orange pajamas; Ludgero, lying on his left side, with his back to his wife and his head buried in the pillow, wore white long johns and t-shirt. On the two bedside tables, there were slim cigarette packs, lighters and two ashtrays filled with cigarette butts. On the table next to Ludgero, there was the phone that may have rang incessantly over those weeks, at the insistence of Paulo Melo, until it ran out of battery.

By early evening, the bodies of Manuela and Ludgero were removed from the building, wrapped in black plastic bags. The autopsy results still haven’t been given to their relatives, but the police and fire department officials stated it was a case of suicide by ingestion of pills.

There was no wake. The funeral occurred as soon as the bodies were returned to their families. The family of Manuela and Ludgero fulfilled the couple’s old wish: being cremated and having their ashes thrown into the sea.

Media attention and speculation

The suicide of Manuela and Ludgero made the headlines in the print media and occupied long minutes in daytime TV shows. António Nobre Square was invaded by journalists, filming the building and interviewing neighbors, even those who never talked to the couple. After the reports were aired, the commentators in those programs spoke invariably of the loneliness caused by family abandonment. The written press went a little further. It was written that they had made a “suicide pact” and were “found in bed facing each other in one last embrace” (Correio da Manhã); they had “money problems and felt alone” (Jornal de Notícias); Manuela’s daughter “locked herself in the car, feeling great remorse and guilt” (Jornal i). There wasn’t even consensus regarding their age: according to Jornal de Notícias, Manuela was 53 and Ludgero 60; in Jornal i, she was over 60 and he was already in his 70s. In fact, he was 60 and she was 59.

Apparently, Manuela and Ludgero’s suicide had all the ingredients, so to speak, to make-up the thesis which was abundantly exploited in the media: they lived alone, without any known relatives and, because of that, everybody – neighbors, journalists and commentators – concluded they had been abandoned by their family; they chose to live in a building with more than 200 residents, in a dormitory-suburb of Lisbon, thus falling into an isolation produced by the weak and rare connections between neighbors; Ludgero would have a “terminal illness”, a “cancer in the intestines”, according to Lucília, the ground floor neighbor, who attended the couple’s home for a brief period; their daughters, both from previous marriages, would have distanced themselves; for many years, Manuela suffered from depression and said she “wanted to die”, said a neighbor to Correio da Manhã.

The end makes the news almost every time, especially when it carries some drama. And the drama often clears everything that came before. Who were Manuela and Ludgero?

Football and rock

In 1971, at only 19, Ludgero married a girl from his hometown of Odivelas. A city that was, at that time, a farm area with little construction and a stream of clean water immortalized by the washerwomen of Caneças. The party had many guests and was held at the Sociedade Columbófila lounge, in one of the city’s main avenues, not far from the house where Ludgero lived with his mother and a younger brother. The marriage, however, was short-lived. After the birth of their daughter, today living in England, the divorce was officiated.

Ludgero played football for a living. He spent a season in Benfica’s youth team and after that he joined the junior team of Odivelas Futebol Clube. He also played for the senior team of Grupo Desportivo de Loures and, later, he would occasionally play with the Benfica veterans. He was a striker with a strong shoot, many times assisted by Veloso, his inseparable friend since age 14. In a black and white photo of the Odivelas junior team, there they are, hands behind their back, in light-colored shirts, dark shorts and white long socks. Ludgero smiles defiantly, in his black and plain hair combed to the side; José Veloso has a serious face and his head up.

The two friends lived near each other and it wasn’t only football that brought them together. They would play pranks on other boys in the Pego das Latas area, “our pool in Odivelas”, José recalls. They liked the same bands and after the revolution of April 25th 1974, they would join other friends for night pilgrimages to Lisbon – especially to Club Maxim’s, in Praça da Alegria. José remembers him as a “playful” young man; Humberto Fraga, Odivelas Futebol Clube’s former president and a few years younger than Ludgero, remembers the long black hair boy, who was “very successful” with girls and lived a “bohemian” life.

In the second half of the 70s, Ludgero formed a small rock band that got to perform at the firefighter’s hall, but there are no records of that show. They played songs of Uriah Heep and Ludgero was the lead singer. José Veloso tells that shortly after, he became “a sort of agent” of the Aranha, one of Portugal’s pioneer progressive rock bands, led by guitarist Luis Firmino, who emigrated to the USA and now plays for The Atomic Band. Some memories of those times remain in the Santo António dos Cavaleiros apartment: a guitar and a vinyl collection (Pink Floyd, Queen, Genesis, but also Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand). Sandra Cruz and Paulo Melo, Ludgero and Manuela’s closest friends in the last 18 months, say that in the final months of his life, he would spend entire afternoons in his pajamas watching VH1 music channel, in bed.

©osomeafuria“They ran away from the world”

It was by the end of the 1970s that Ludgero met Manuela, the daughter of the owners of a café in Odivelas, and sister of three boys and a girl. Manuela already had a daughter, living with her ex-husband after the separation. Their meeting preceded the entrance of Ludgero at the Banco Fomento Exterior – the bank management wanted to build a futsal team and needed a good striker. José Veloso, who worked for this institution, on Casal Ribeiro Avenue, in Lisbon, immediately thought of his friend. The proposal was attractive: he would play for the team and earn a place in the bank. After an interview, Ludgero got accepted. With the Banco Fomento Exterior jersey, José and Ludgero played in the interbank national tournaments, but fame came when they played the football leagues promoted by the INATEL Foundation.

The salary of Ludgero and Manuela, working for the Portuguese Institute of Oncology in Lisbon, allowed them to buy a small apartment in a 3-floor building in one of the busiest streets of Odivelas, Major Caldas Xavier Street. Currently, the street doesn’t have as many shops as before, but there are still some merchants resisting the shopping centers nearby. Everybody at no. 34 remembers the couple who used to live in 3D. Fátima and Maria, who up until last October, when they were confronted with the news of the suicide, thought Manuela and Ludgero were living a few kilometers away, in Póvoa de Santo Adrião, recall them as two private but friendly people. Maria remembers with fondness the couple’s dog, Dick, “big with light brown hair, very clever. It was like a person.” she says, recounting that it was Dick who would go buy his owner the sports newspaper. “Mr. Ludgero would put a pouch with money tied to Dick’s leash and it knew it had to go get the paper. It would bring it in his mouth. And when it accompanied Mrs. Manuela to the café down the street, it would sit there looking at her, until she gave him a sweet”. When they were forced to shoot the dog due to a fatal disease, “they were very sad”. Indeed, all the building residents were sad, says Mary, who learned of Manuela and Ludgero’s death through the press. She recalls that “he would go to pharmacy very often”, returning with “bags full of packages”.

Ludgero was a hypochondriac, but around this time when he would climb the stairs to the 3rd floor with the bag from the pharmacy, he was already entering a phase of depression. This condition quickly prevented him from working. With little over 40 years, he retired from Banco Fomento Exterior, even before it was acquired in 1996 by the Banco Português de Investimento. Having nothing to do eventually accelerated his depressive state. José Veloso used to find him sitting on a park bench, in a small square next to that 3-floor building, reading the sports newspaper A Bola. “He often needed to vent. He told me he was taking 22 pills a day and had a reactive depression, which would have him taking medication for the rest of his life”. They spent many hours talking, but José keeps his friend’s secrets. He continues to speak of him as if he were alive. “Sometimes I’d be late to work at the bank because I couldn’t leave him alone.”

In the small one-bedroom house of Odivelas, Manuela tried three times to commit suicide, always through the ingestion of pills. She also suffered from depression and had been accompanied by several psychiatrists in different hospitals. In Santo António dos Cavaleiros, her daily cocktail of drugs was already the result of changes and mixtures, as she was rarely satisfied with the doctors’ prescriptions. So, the small walk to Seripipi café was often done with wobbly steps and some occasional falls. In one of those falls, in which she was left with one bruised leg, it was the neighborhood kids, who play football in the square, who helped her, holding her up to the building’s doorstep.

After a certain point, Ludgero started talking to José Veloso about the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus – IURD). On weekends, the couple would travel to Lisbon to attend the IURD sessions at the former Cinema Alvalade, in Roma Avenue. But they stopped going when they moved to Santo António dos Cavaleiros. There, Manuela began to take interest in spiritualism and had a large library about it at home. José remembers Ludgero being interested in the subject, but didn’t pay much attention to it. Paulo and Sandra, however, remember the couple speaking recurrently about “life after death” and sometimes quoting “Bible passages” by heart, during the conversations which went on all night at Ludgero and Manuela’s apartment.

Around five or six years ago, Manuela wanted to leave Odivelas. Ludgero agreed, despite having already finished paying for their house. They sold the apartment in Major Caldas Xavier Street, removed all furniture and appliances, didn’t say goodbye to the neighbors or the few friends they had, didn’t leave any new address, nobody knew they were going to Santo António dos Cavaleiros, a town not far from Odivelas. They asked for a bank loan and chose the 4th floor of a tower built around 30 years ago. This change brought some new habits with it – Ludgero and Manuela started smoking about three packs a day – and increased their voluntary isolation. They cut all family and friendship bonds. José lost his cellphone and Ludgero’s number along with it. Ludgero never called him, and José didn’t know who to contact in Odivelas to try to find the whereabouts of his friend. Nobody knew where the Matias couple was, married a few years ago, after decades of being together. “They ran away from the world”, says José.

Manuela and Ludgero, Sandra and Paulo

Nothing in Santo António dos Cavaleiros changed the state of depression they were both living. Quite the opposite. Manuela would only work for short periods, often staying at home on sick leave. Even so, she kept going outside. She enjoyed doing some window-shopping at the nearest shopping center with Lucília, the ground floor neighbor, one of her few acquaintances. She became a “compulsive shopper” and that bothered Lucília. “I couldn’t tell her I liked something. She would buy it immediately”. Sometimes she would come home with bags full of new clothes, especially when she began to put on weight. “She started staying increasingly alone because, like some few other friends, I felt I was being dragged into that depression. I couldn’t cope with it and so I pulled away.”

Manuela kept buying clothes, shoddy rings with large colored stones, bracelets and necklaces. Taruna, owner of Modas Nelita store, says that Manuela went there almost every day, buying mostly pants and blouses. She would buy on credit, but Taruna never waited long for the payment. “Her last purchase on credit was a bathroom mat”. Manuela would then go to the café’s covered terrace. She would take a book and stay there until the end of the day. Ludgero used to accompany her. Before sitting down to read the paper, he would take a peek at the cards game which still gathers a dozen men around one of the tables of Seripipi café.

One afternoon, about four years ago, Paulo and Sandra, costumers at the same café, noticed the couple. “There’s a couple who looks like us”, Paulo said. However, their friendship only got strong about a year and a half ago. The reason was a small white dog that was found on the street and left at Taruna’s store. The shopkeeper offered it to Conceição Félix: “But I immediately thought of Mrs. Manuela and I decided to ask her if she wanted to have it. She instantly said yes.”

The dog was named Dusty by Lucília, in honor of a dog that had died many years before, and that eventually joined up Ludgero and Manuela with Paulo and Sandra, who always liked animals. From then on, Paulo, 45, and Sandra, 44, started being daily guests at apartment 4C. The vicinity of their homes and other affinities (“sometimes we also feel very much alone”, says Paul) helped cement their friendship. We would have dinner there on weekends. I’ve never eaten so many pork ribs and fries in my life. She never took anything from the freezer, she would always go buy pork ribs to grill.  We would talk until four or five in the morning. We talked about everything: politics, books, but also about Manuela’s excessive medication. I was always discussing it with Ludgero, because he thought she wasn’t taking more pills than she needed”, Sandra says. She doesn’t recall hearing them talk about their families, except one time when Manuela said she had a daughter. One day, Ludgero asked Paulo what method he would choose to commit suicide: “I told him I would prefer the so-called ‘sweet death’, with gas. And he told me he had a much better one, but he didn’t tell me what it was. I didn’t want to extend that conversation and I didn’t ask.”

When Paulo and Sandra started going to Manuela and Ludgero’s apartment, the man had almost quit going out of the house. He would spend the day in pajamas, watching TV. But according to Sandra, he always prepared the living room table for dinner at 6p.m. sharp. At night, he normally would take Dusty out. Lucília, whose window faces the entrance of the building, says that Ludgero would release the dog and stand there leaning against the door, smoking. Always in his pajamas and robe.

Sandra did some cleaning at their new friends’ house. “It was chaos because it had been long since they’d had a cleaning lady. There were lots of clothes on the couch and the kitchen needed a good cleaning”. When some pipes burst at Manuela and Ludgero’s apartment, Sandra started washing their clothes at her house. The plumbing problem didn’t get solved because “they wanted the building insurance to cover it”. Manuela would go take a bath at Sandra and Paulo’s; Ludgero would wash himself with paper wipes.

On the morning of September 14th, Paulo found Manuela at Seripipi, as usual. She had Dusty with her, and a plastic bag. “She asked me if I could stay with the dog for a few days because she and Ludgero would be at her brother’s house until next Wednesday. I told her ‘yes, of course. I really like Dusty’.” But when he got home and saw the contents of the bag – shampoo, food, a brush and Dusty’s winter clothing – Paulo thought something was wrong. His distrust only intensified when he remembered that Manuela had asked him not to go to their house because her husband “was very sickly”. He told Sandra and she decided to go visit them that same evening.

Ludgero received her in his pajamas, as always. “I went in and went to the living room. On the couch there was a closed brown suitcase. Manuela seemed to have a tough time looking at me. Ludgero asked if she had already paid me what was due for the cleaning. I replied we would see about that later and she thanked me in silence, behind him, with her hands together. I explained that I was there because they had forgotten to give me Dusty’s toys and I went looking for them myself. After that, Ludgero told me Manuela’s brother was coming and that they would rather be alone to receive him”. That was the last time she saw them.

Sandra and Paulo waited for Wednesday. At the end of the day, they called their cellphones and the landline phone. There was a call signal, but no one answered. They decided to wait until Sunday, thinking the couple could have extended their stay at their relatives. In that same Sunday, Sandra decided to contact the police (PSP), to no avail. They replied that they hadn’t received any alert from the relatives. She tried the Judiciary Police (PJ) and PSP again. Again to no avail. Paulo took Dusty to the building entrance. He wanted to take the dog to its owner’s door to see if it smelled something strange, but he ran into Conceição and didn’t get to go to the 4th floor. “She told me she also found that absence strange and that she had noticed that the room curtains were out the window.”

More than two weeks after Manuela was last seen, Paulo observed the commotion of police cars, fire engines and ambulances parked at the building entrance and immediately thought: “They’re dead”. He was with Dusty. A PSP officer asked him if he knew whether there would be decomposing food in the house. “It’s not food, they’re dead”, he replied. “I knew they could only be in bed. When they weren’t eating or with us, they were always lying in bed”, Paulo explains. Sandra believes that Manuela and Ludgero left a letter where they wrote about their new friends. But the authorities didn’t find anything. “We lost these people. It was pretty bad. I can’t understand why they did this. I find it very strange that they didn’t leave us a note. Why did they do it?” Paulo asks.

A few days after the discovery of Manuela and Ludgero’s bodies, Paulo and Sandra gave the dog to Conceição Félix. They couldn’t afford to keep Dusty and decided to give it to who had found it in the first place. For her part, Conceição gave it to her grandchildren.

José Veloso, immediately after hearing about what had happened, rushed to Santo António dos Cavaleiros, in search of any information. He wanted to be at the funeral. He asked at the church, but no one could tell him where the ceremony would be held. “They ran away from the world, friends, family”, he repeats, “It wasn’t the other way around.”

In apartment 4C, there are two open windows now, on the living room and the bedroom, both with curtains hanging outside. Inside, everything is intact, just as Manuela and Ludgero left it. The electricity has been turned off, the food has been removed from the refrigerator and freezer, and several liters of pure bleach have been poured onto the mattress.