CAVEMAN – A Quest for Freedom in Spain. The first two chapters:

1

“Could you drop me here, señor?” he asked from his seat near the front of the bus.

“You don’t wish to enter the village?” the driver asked, observing the tall, foreign man through one of his mirrors.

“Not today, gracias.”

“As you wish.”

When the bus had climbed the slope and disappeared behind the first squat white houses, he hoisted his rucksack onto his shoulders, crossed the main road, and headed off up the dusty track towards a gorge. The sun was to the south-east and he ought to have plenty of time.

As he strolled between fields of almond trees, a few still in blossom, it struck him as ironic that one of the many things that he wished to escape from had enabled him to pinpoint this promising spot, on the last computer he intended to own. He could have asked in the village, of course, as the days he had spent in Granada and Baza had reassured him that his Spanish, although poor, was more than adequate for his needs, but he wished to start out as he proposed to go on, alone.

He carried on his back all he needed for at least a week. The narrow, fast-flowing stream that he left the track to follow entered a rocky gully where he hoped to discover his new home. He saw no footprints on the scrubby, stony earth, and counted only four cartridge shells, all rusty enough to suggest that nobody had passed that way for a long time.

The hare which darted away upstream had nothing to fear, as Tom Worsley, retired postman of forty-three, was no hunter. He was no survival expert either, and would need a supermarket sooner or later, but he had promised himself a week of complete solitude before he pushed open another door.

His rucksack was heavier than any postbag he had carried during the last twenty years, but contained no tent. He would find a suitable place in one of these ravines or sleep under the stars. After eating a sandwich, he drank and washed his hands and face in the stream. No sooner had he pulled on his new boots than he spotted a crevice away to his left, some ten or twelve yards above the level of the stream.

It proved to be just that, a crevice, but no matter, he had all the time in the world to find himself a small, isolated cave in which to live. After exploring that gully he clambered up to the top and from the plateau saw more ravines to the north, east and south. After the miles of cultivated fields he had passed on the bus from Baza, this harsh, fragmented landscape felt strange but appealing, and he scrambled down into the next gully, scanning the opposite side for any promising apertures.

By sundown he had located three caves, none of which would become his home. One was large enough, but too close to the riverbed – a dry one this time, so no good to him – and with a sloping floor. Another was higher up, but only slightly deeper than the length of his body, and the third was a good cave, but, like the first, too easily accessible, as the chiselled graffiti attested. Jose y Marta, was the deepest inscription he found, and looked the oldest. He wondered if they were still together, or still alive, before stroking their handiwork and stepping outside.

He returned to the small, high cave, dropped his rucksack inside, and hurried to the top of the slope to see the sun setting behind the distant mountains. Yes, this area would do just fine if he could find the right cave. He felt pleased that his deduction – that if there were cave dwellings in and around the villages, there were bound to be more stone sanctuaries further afield – had proved to be correct. He gazed at the reddening sky until he began to shiver, before creeping cautiously down to find his head torch before darkness fell.

He unpacked his foam mat and sleeping bag, before pulling out his cooking utensils. Should he bother to cook something, or just eat his last sandwich?

Cook, you lazy devil. A hermit can´t live on bread and cheese alone, or rather he can, but needn’t. This is what you wanted. This is what you´ve spent the last two months planning, so start as you mean to go on.

He spoke aloud and it didn’t seem too weird a thing to do. Maybe he should talk to himself in Spanish though, as he’d be seeing people eventually. He didn´t want to say goodbye to his fellow man forever, but just have a rest and test himself. He might be wrong, but he suspected that a complete break from people and technology was the ideal first step in his quest for a more meaningful life.

Wipe the slate clean, then start afresh, Tom Worsley. Let´s see if we can make the second part of your life more fulfilling than the first. Now cook.

If heating up a can of chilli con carne can be called cooking, he cooked, but, to be fair, it was cramped in the cave and the slope outside was too steep for his tiny camping stove. There would be time enough to make rice or pasta and something to pour onto it once he had found his permanent cave, so he ate his meal with bread, before boiling water for tea.

Later he bedded down with his towel-cushioned head almost level with the cave entrance and gazed up at half a skyful of stars. It was the first time he had camped out alone for two decades and it felt good. The night was chilly, but when he found his permanent cave he would be protected from cold and heat alike, or so he had read.

***

When his father had died in January he resigned from the Royal Mail immediately and began to plan his new life. He had been waiting for a long time, not for his father to die exactly, but as he had returned to his home town twenty years earlier due to the old man’s ill health, he felt it was high time he moved on.

He had been in Spain when he had made the fateful call – to his aunt, as his Dad wasn’t picking up – and been told that he’d had a heart attack. He had just finished his round, she said, when he came over all queer, and his colleague had rushed him to A&E just in case, and just as well, the doctors said. He never delivered the post again, but Tom applied just to please him, so another Worsley tramped the streets of their Lancashire town for a score more years.

His workmates said he was mad to pack it in, just when he’d been given a rural driving route, but Tom had already worked out that he need never do paid work again, not if he lived frugally. He wasn’t averse to work as such, but resolved to do it how and when he chose. Not that the Post Office hadn’t been a benign employer, but the books he had read had turned his head, some folk said, and made him throw away his career and sell that fine detached house too quickly and cheaply.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it,” he had quoted to one soon to be ex-colleague, having just read Thoreau’s Walden for the third time.

“What’s that supposed to mean, Tom?”

“You’ve just bought a new car, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, calculate how many hours you had, or have, to work to pay for it and that’s how much life you’ve exchanged for it.”

His colleague thought for a while. “That’s a lot of hours.”

“Exactly.”

“But I enjoy my job.”

“Hmm, that’s a good point. I don’t think the bloke who wrote what I just said considered that. He assumed everyone disliked doing paid work. Still, it’s a good rule of thumb, isn’t it? Every ten quid that you spend has cost you about an hour spent tramping round this town, rain or shine.”

“I still think you’re mad to pack it in.”

“Maybe, but it’s something I’ve been promising myself for a long time.”

“What?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Tom said, and with a week of his notice period still to work his possible ways of escape were still various and vague.

***

His digital watch rather than the sun woke him the following morning, making him wonder which way he would prefer his future home to face. By the time he had dressed and made his way down to the stream to wash, he had concluded that sunny mornings or evenings would be equally acceptable, and that as there was no estate agent’s portfolio to browse through, he’d better be satisfied with what he got.

It had been while looking at estate agents’ websites, however, that the cave idea had first occurred to him. Initially he thought about buying one, as they were to be had cheaply in this part of the world, especially if water and electricity were ‘close by’ – a euphemism for not connected – but his increasingly radical train of thought had led to him leaving over 99% of his money in the bank and flying out to search for an untenanted, undocumented freehold to the north-east of Granada, whose wonderful Alhambra Palace he had visited four days earlier.

Maybe a few of those clever Moorish builders found themselves down on their luck around here and carved themselves out a little country pad. If there’s a quiet, habitable cave near here, I’ll be inhabiting it by nightfall, be it manmade, natural, or a bit of both.

After breakfasting on the leftover sandwich and a mug of hot chocolate, he decided to conceal his rucksack in the little cave in order to tour the remaining gullies more rapidly. After exploring three gullies in as many hours he was about to go back to retrieve his pack, walk back to the road, and catch a bus northwards to the next village. Then a long crack in the rock behind a stunted, sunlit pine tree caught his eye. He leapt over the narrow stream, scrambled up a gravelly slope, and climbed the last few yards of smooth rock on all fours.

What had looked like a fissure from down below was in fact a slanted opening about four feet high, a yard wide at the base, and a foot wide at the top. He gripped the narrow trunk of the tree and prepared to haul himself up and around it.

Don’t get your hopes up, because none have been any good so far. South-facing too, but maybe not so easy to get back down from here. But there’s depth to that darkness. Damn, my head torch. Well, stretch out your arm and hope for the best.

This said, he stepped onto the ledge and, remaining crouched, shuffled inside with his right palm outstretched. He soon touched stone, but sensing space to his left, he moved that way. When he had covered a few feet he exhaled slowly, a few more and he smiled. He slowly stood up straight and his thick hair rustled against the roof. Six feet just there. He closed his eyes for a moment before turning around slowly, and as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom he saw there was some width to the place and more length than he cared to explore without his torch, lest he bump into a skeleton or two. He made his way back outside and noted that the floor seemed fairly flat.

Standing just outside what he already considered his doorway, he looked down the steep slope. Tricky now, lethal in the wet. A rope ladder? Ha, sure, for any hunter or hiker who passes to see. To the right it was even steeper, but he figured that by walking carefully along a crack in the rock to his left he ought to be able to descend without having to slide down on his backside. Unloaded it proved easy, and when would he ever leave the cave with luggage? Only once, maybe a month, a year, or a decade from now.

Ha, let’s say a week to begin with. Now go get that rucksack and shine the old torch around.

This he did and he liked what he saw. His new home was an open-plan affair, roughly rhombus-shaped, about eight yards long by four yards across the middle. Just over six feet proved to be the highest point, but he could have swung a cat at shoulder height without stunning it, not that he had anything against cats, though he preferred dogs, despite their neediness.

Home sweet home, or rather, hogar dulce hogar. Sleeping area there where it’s smoothest, living and dining room in the middle, and kitchen near the doorway. Bathroom outside, though a trimmed water bottle should see me through the night. Trowel handy for number twos. Now what do I do? Unpack? Find wood for a fire to save gas? Write some profound notes in my notebook? Open that bottle of wine?

In the event he scoured the cave for signs of past or current occupation. He found no bird or bat droppings, whatever bat droppings looked like, and just a few creepy-crawlies, all dead. One bit of graffiti, a faint cross, so presumably no more than two thousand years old. No pick or chisel marks, so the cave was natural. Then he tested the temperature. Maybe eighteen degrees today, warm in the sun, and progressively cooler as you approached the back of the cave. He knew that such a small cave couldn’t perform miracles of refrigeration, but guessed that when things hotted up as summer approached, the rear of the cave would become the place to be.

And the cold? Heck, who knows where you’ll be half a year from now. You’ve spent twenty years posting letters, so now let’s take things one day at a time. Carpe diem and all that.

***

He had done more than just post letters during the last twenty years, of course, despite having had to abandon his first love at twenty-two. Running had been his passion, and he had been good at it, though, on retrospect, maybe not quite good enough to have thrown away a good history degree in pursuit of his dream. The knee operation had put paid to that, and when he left York University with a 2.2 he knew that his vague intention of doing a doctorate – easy to fit around his training schedule – was as scuppered as his running career.

“As well as my 2.2, I’ve run 10,000 metres in just over twenty-nine minutes,” he might have said at the interview.

“Very interesting. They’ll give you your travelling expenses in the office.”

He had been working in a pub in York, loath to leave the scene of his triumphs and failures, when a friend suggested a walking tour in northern Spain. His knee should be able to handle that, he thought, so when his friend got cold feet, he went alone and walked west from Figueres to Besalú, Olot, Ripoll, Berga and Solsona, before hitching a ride to Lérida. The car journey having given him a taste for speed, he hopped on a bus to Zaragoza, where he spent two rainy days, before catching a train to Pamplona.

In early August, with the bull running multitudes long gone, he walked around the tranquil city and liked what he saw and felt. How could it be so hot and yet so green? he asked himself on his first morning, and the brief but daily afternoon downpours soon explained that. He loafed around and was in no hurry to leave. He was strolling past a language school one day when he came to a halt. The Union Jack sign seemed to beckon him. He rang the bell, but there was no answer. Back at the cheap hotel he borrowed the Páginas Amarillas and neatly tore out the two pages containing the city’s Academias de Inglés, over a dozen of them.

The next morning, asterisk-scarred street map in hand, he toured the streets and, August being holiday month, came across many a shuttered door, but in none of the half dozen schools where he found signs of life was he declared unemployable. At one rather tatty ground floor establishment he was led to believe that should he still be around in September, they might be able to use a neophyte such as he.

Elated, he had called his father, then his aunt, and finally booked the next flight from Bilbao to Manchester. Four months later he was a postman and he never got round to returning to Spain during the next twenty years. Inertia? A sense of duty? Whatever, but apart from posting letters, what had he done since his language teaching career had been thwarted?

Well, since returning to his father’s house – his strange and estranged mother having hopped it to New Zealand with another chap some years earlier – he had fallen in love twice and out of love once. After a couple of flings in York, he had found the first love of his life back in his home town.

Jenny was his age, twenty-five at the time, worked in a bank, and wanted two children. At first they loved, planned, walked at the weekends, and watched a little television. By the time Tom had half moved into her terraced house they loved and walked less and watched a lot more television. Jenny made as many plans for them as ever, but by then Tom’s only plan was to extricate himself from the noose of sedentary domesticity as soon as he could decently do so.

It was during his year with Jenny that he had his first run-in with technology, in the shape of that tiresome box in the corner of her living room. Until then he had used television much as he used a toaster; he switched it on when he wanted to use it. Toasters have the advantage of switching themselves off, of course, and one evening at Jenny’s he ventured an analogical quip regarding the two devices.

“What do you mean, Tom?”

“Well, you know, if the TV switched itself off at, say, ten o’clock, I’m sure we’d find something more interesting to do.”

“But we’d miss some of the best programmes, silly.”

“I guess so,” he said, as ‘Yes, dear’ had gone out of fashion by the late-nineties.

Two months later he was back at Dad’s, admiring the old man’s brutal verdicts regarding the four TV channels they had access to.

“Shit, shit, shit and… shit. Off it goes,” he would sometimes say, before giving the remote a final vicious stab.

“Here, here, Dad.”

The two of them got along just fine for the next five years and Tom liked to be around to make sure his father didn’t resume the pie and beer diet that the doctors had forbidden him. Even in a brain drain town like theirs, however, opportunities have a way of presenting themselves from time to time, and when Tom met Sue on a college Spanish course he finally discovered what true love really was.

Until then he had never associated love with pain at all, but when, after months of post-class rendezvous, he asked her if she would consider leaving her lousy husband, her negative caused him much distress.

“But we can still do this,” she said, as they lay in Tom’s bed after filling their two hours together as best they could.

“No, Sue, it’s got to be all or nothing.”

“My kids are three and five, Tom. It wouldn’t be right. Maybe in a few years…”

So that was the end of him and Sue, and the end of his Spanish course too. Even seven years on he still thought about her now and then, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame her for the fact that he was now settling into a cave in the wilds of southern Spain. He hadn’t been so heartbroken, but she had been an inquisitive, cultured woman, the like of whom he’d be unlikely to run into again in his dour northern town.

***

Tom thought about Sue as he unpacked his rucksack in the light of the cave entrance. He hadn’t done any more college courses after they had gone their separate ways, for fear of meeting her there. The Spanish course had rekindled his interest in the country, but from then on he associated the language with Sue, so any plans to return were pushed to the back of his mind.

Better to have loved and lost, I suppose. Maybe there’ll be a nice Spanish girl out there for me… well, a woman, as I am forty-three now. Ha, being a cave dweller will narrow the field a bit, to say the least. Now, let’s have a look at my worldly possessions, not counting all those boxes I left at Darren’s.

His voice sounded loud in the cave, though he was speaking softly enough. He shuffled through the eight books he had brought. A dictionary; a Spanish grammar book; Walden, of course; Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, in case his stoicism faltered; Don Quixote, in English, as the original was way beyond his linguistic abilities; The Brothers Karamazov, as he found Dostoyevsky such hard work that he knew it would last him a long time; a travel guide to Andalucía, for when the walls of his cave and gully ceased to fascinate him; and Bouvard and Pécuchet, because although Flaubert hadn’t quite had time to finish it, Tom loved the story of the two Paris clerks, released from their drudgery by Bouvard’s inheritance. Free to pursue their practical and intellectual interests, ranging from archeology to theology, their constant failure to achieve anything of note was, Tom had read, Flaubert’s way of questioning what is knowable.

They were seen as clowns, though they were pretty ludicrous, and I’ll be seen as a clown when people find out I’m living here. ‘Why?’ they’ll ask. ‘Pushing the boundaries,’ I’ll say, when I learn how to say it. They’ll look puzzled, then laugh when I’ve gone. What of it? Hell, one decade posting letters is much like another, and did I really want two more of them?

He leant the books against the wall on a plastic bag, though the cave didn’t seem damp, and wondered if he should have brought his e-reading device. No, he most certainly shouldn’t, or he’d be scurrying into the village he was yet to explore to recharge the damn thing. His cheap mobile phone was fully charged and switched off, and that was the only concession he was going to make to modern life, apart from his digital watch, head torch and small gas canisters.

When he had placed and lit three fat candles he switched off his head torch and left it near his books. He knew that candles had been around for a few thousand years, so when he averted his eyes from his modern gear he ought to have felt no different to any other cave dweller from times gone by, except that he doubted that any of them had felt as uncomfortable as he did. After sitting on his packed sleeping bag for a while, he tried sitting cross-legged on the foam mat, but when that tired him he concluded that if he didn’t want to spend most of his time indoors lying down, he’d better make, find or buy some kind of chair.

Tom was handy, but not handy enough to fashion a comfortable seat from anything nature might provide in the vicinity. Maybe he would find an old plastic chair dumped somewhere near the village, but it wouldn’t do to be seen scavenging, as that wasn’t the kind of impression he wished to make when he eventually revealed himself.

He wasn’t a vain man, but knew that he was self-conscious enough to care what the villagers thought when they finally laid eyes on him. He carried a flimsy knapsack in his rucksack and planned to wander up to the village one day as if he had just got off the bus.

Come on, you’ve only been inside here for an hour and you’re already thinking about other people. Find yourself first, before you go looking for company.

Still, a chair would be nice and he feared that a trip down to Baza, a town of some twenty thousand inhabitants, might be necessary as he doubted that he would find a purveyor of folding chairs in the village. It was a shame that the cave walls sloped inwards, but one couldn’t have everything.

Tomorrow I’ll collect some rocks and make a place to lean back on, because I’m not going to the village for another six days, and then only to shop. Food, coffee, candles, maybe a spare lighter. What else?

He pondered for a while, but couldn’t think of anything else he really needed. A newspaper? Not yet. He would switch on his phone every few days and was sure that one friend or another would tell him if the world was about to end. If that were the case he would go to the village and get drunk, but if not he would save his bottle of good red wine for a special occasion.

He’d had his bouts of heavy drinking in the past, such as after he was told he would never run competitively again, and after splitting up with Sue, but it had been a few years since he’d rounded off his week’s work with a heavy session. Drunk on Saturday night, rough on Sunday, lethargic on Monday, back to work on Tuesday. What a waste of life.

He stirred himself. Half past six. Daylight enough to make a start on his easy chair, and the work would make getting to sleep easier.

Two hours later the sun was setting and he had carried up several rocks from the ravine and stacked them against the wall to enable himself to sit upright, cushioned by his sleeping mat. He could improve the angle the next day and maybe find an old board somewhere for a seat. Perhaps that trip to Baza wouldn’t be necessary after all.

Food, coffee and candles. Was it possible that he really needed nothing else? Thoreau’s cabin in Walden Woods had been a complex affair compared to this, and he’d nipped into town most days to enjoy his mother’s cooking. Henry David had had a bed, a table, three chairs, a fireplace, and a cupboard for his clothes. True, he’d built the cabin himself, but his famous pal Emerson had lent him the land to build it on. All things considered, Tom thought he was adapting to his own circumstances pretty well and only hoped that boredom wouldn’t set in and convince him that what he was doing was a waste of time.

Thoreau had been a genius, after all, though few had known it at the time. With a brain like that, plus writing materials, and surrounded by the nature he loved, he had been in his element. Tom liked nature well enough, but didn’t know a buzzard from a barn owl and doubted that the severe landscape that surrounded his cave would offer the same delights as the miles of wild woodland where Thoreau had spent hours on end; sometimes walking, sometimes sitting in contemplation, that great mass of grey matter chugging happily away.

The New Englander wouldn’t have been suffering from internet addiction back in the 1840s either. Tom wasn’t as hooked as some people and was able to walk up to a mile without pulling out his smartphone – now sold – and prodding it, but at home he had found it hard to stay away from the laptop for more than an hour at a time. The weeks spent planning his new life had only exacerbated his compulsive behaviour, so after cooking and eating his pasta and Bolognese sauce, his fingers began to feel very itchy indeed.

He was pleased, even relieved, when after reading a few pages of The Brothers Karamazov he began to confuse the brothers and was too sleepy to care. He blew out the candles on either side of him and zipped up his sleeping bag.

My second night and I’m showing no signs of madness yet. Buenas noches, cueva mía. Mañana será un nuevo día.

 

2

Tom had positioned his sleeping bag facing the cave entrance and when the alarm on his watch woke him, light was beginning to filter inside. When he could make out his possessions he got up, banged his head on the roof, swore softy, and began to dress. By the time the sun had risen over the top of the ravine he had washed, filled his collapsible water carrier, and taken his trowel some way down and away from the stream, where he had already located the patch of earth that would do as his loo for a while.

He felt self-conscious as he crouched over the hole, but reassured himself that the chances of someone wandering up the gully at eight o’clock on a weekday morning were remote. Tomorrow, a Saturday, he would be as well to look out for hunters, though he was almost sure that the season for small game had already ended. A fortnight ago a doubt of this kind would have had him reaching for his phone to find out for sure, and he chuckled to himself as he made his way back to the cave.

If they hunt, they hunt, and if they don’t, they don’t, so why worry?

He could ask in the village in a few days anyway. It might be a good conversation starter in the bar, though he wasn’t sure that he would understand their replies. He’d had that problem in Granada and Baza, and had concluded that the reward for preparing a perfect sentence was a torrent of words that he could only respond to by saying, ‘No hablo español muy bien.’ Far better, he had found, to speak badly so that they would know right away that they were talking to a fool or a foreigner.

Tom was quite swarthy for a Lancastrian. His eyes and hair were very dark, and as postmen are exposed to whatever sunshine is on offer – more than people like to think – twenty years in the open air had made him duskier than most. In the long run this should help him to integrate, he thought, but in Granada he had sometimes wished for blonde hair and blue eyes when a statement like, ‘It is warm for the time of year,’ was met by an incomprehensible barrage of words.

Rather than climbing back up to the cave, he left his water container and walked downstream looking for firewood. Where the gully opened out a little there were a few stunted pine trees and what he thought might be juniper bushes, and he picked up and cracked off a few dead twigs and branches. Back at the cave he built a small fire in the entrance and looked at it, scratching his head.

It might fill the cave with smoke, it would certainly dirty his doorstep, and he had no spare paper. He could start working his way through the five hundred sheets of Dostoyevsky – an incentive to plough on through the book – but is seemed a bit disrespectful. In the end he stacked the firewood at the back of the cave and lit his camping stove.

I’m no Bear Grylls, after all, and the canisters last a long time. Besides, the smoke might attract someone’s attention, and I don’t want the Guardia Civil to know I’m here.

Content with this excuse, he boiled water for coffee and ate some muesli. It was all the tinned food and cartons of milk that had made his rucksack so heavy, and his next shopping expedition was sure to raise eyebrows if anyone saw him leave the village.

What the hell? They’ll find out I’m here eventually, and after a week alone I might be glad of a bit of attention. If the cops move me on, so be it. It’s not as if I can’t afford to rent a place. Now, what am I going to do today?

Tom had no trouble filling his time on his first full day in his new home, mainly because the warm sun meant that he hardly entered the cave at all. In the morning he walked eastwards, away from the village, and as he followed the mostly dry riverbeds it occurred to him that his private stream might not keep flowing all summer long.

Having always been something of a worrier, issues like this would help him to cultivate his new outlook on life. For years he had worried about his father’s health, his own lack of purpose, and dozens of other trifling things. Now he resolved to simplify his life to such an extent that he would have nothing to waste his time worrying about. With good health and over £200,000 in the bank, why on earth did he have to worry? As he walked along from one gully to the next he made a rough mental calculation and shared it with the few birds which were fluttering about.

If I spend about thirty euros a week on shopping – call it forty to include clothes and whatnot – that’s about two grand a year, so I should be OK for the next hundred years or so.

After about two hours spent zigzagging through the gullies he scrambled up one of the higher of the squat hills and was pleased to see fields to the east, so his arid, ribbed domain stretched maybe four miles across. To the north he could make out flatlands in the distance, but to the south he saw nothing but a succession of gullies. It wasn’t really land fit for human habitation, but where else in southern Spain could one live in a cave for free?

On his way back he made some more pragmatic calculations. If he did have to rent a place his annual expenditure could rise as high as eight thousand euros. That would allow him to live for twenty-five years, but at sixty-five – no, sixty-seven – he would receive maybe two-thirds of a state pension and a handy amount from his Post Office pension too. If, on the other hand, he bought a cave house, and quite a decent one could be had for thirty thousand in the area, he should be able to get by on as little as four thousand euros a year.

That makes more sense, but why on earth am I spending my time thinking about money when the whole idea is to get away from such worldly matters? Peace of mind, I guess, but put a lid on it now.

On his return to the cave he lunched on noodles and fruit, before taking a mug of coffee and his well-thumbed copy of Walden to the plateau above the cave. He settled down against a rock to flick through the book and remind himself how Thoreau had spent his time during those two years, two months and two days in the cabin by Walden Pond.

He had walked in the woods for hours on end studying the bountiful flora and fauna of the near-virgin woods, which he later wrote about in great detail. Tom looked up and over the infertile ravines and didn’t think that erudite chap would have got much mileage out of what he saw.

He had read a lot, often in Greek or Latin. Tom had eight books, most of which he had read before, and to obtain more would probably require a trip to Granada, or a postal address.

Being only two miles from the town of Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau had received plenty of visitors, some of them as highbrow as himself, Emerson’s residence there having attracted more writers and academics to a town only fifteen miles from the long-established Harvard University. Tom lived about two miles from the village, which he doubted was a hub of cultural activity, and no-one knew he was there.

Thoreau had gone home for lunch most days, something he played down in the book. Tom’s father was dead and his mother was on the other side of the world

Above all, Thoreau had written, mostly in the detailed journal that he kept up from 1837 until 1861, a year before his death at the age of forty-four. Tom had brought a single notebook in which all he had written so far were some Spanish phrases and a few economic calculations. He closed his eyes and leant back to absorb the sun’s rays.

Well, comparisons are odious anyway, so I think I’ll put Henry David back in the rucksack for now and go and finish my chair.

He rose, picked up a couple of stones, and took them down to the cave, before spending the rest of the afternoon completing his first DIY task. By dint of much searching in the stream he managed to construct a chair that was comfortable enough to lean against even without the foam mat, for a while at least.

What else could he do to improve his home? The doorway was fine as it was, as to reduce its size would darken the cave even more. In the long-term he could really go to town and furnish the place properly, but as the sun began to set he had a feeling that his stay there wasn’t going to be a lengthy one.

It was a thrill to be there and he was pleased that he had dared to do it, but he already felt that this stripping down to bare essentials was just the first stage in his reinsertion into the civilised world. It was like taking a cure, after which he would go back among people with a clean bill of mental health. Not that he had been nuts or depressed before he arrived, but he had needed a purge and he was getting it.

If I had a real vocation as a hermit, I wouldn’t be counting down the days till I can go to the village, would I? It’s good to feel sleepy too, because the sooner I see the sun again, the better.

***

That’s how he felt that evening, but by the following afternoon he was feeling a lot more upbeat about the whole thing, not least because he had met a man from the village. Tom had spotted him walking along the rough path near the stream as he sat in the mouth of the cave drinking a cup of tea. His first impulse had been to withdraw into the shadows, but what was the sense in that? He was constantly wondering how the villagers would react to his presence when his self-imposed exile was over, and here was a chance to test the water right away.

Besides, the man down below was no khaki-clad hunter with a loaded shotgun, but a youngish chap striding purposefully along dressed in sports clothes and trainers. Tom quickly pulled on his boots, hoping to distance himself from the cave before he was spotted, in case the man proved unsympathetic.

When their eyes met, Tom had almost reached level ground and the chap’s cheery wave put his mind at ease.

“Buenos días,” said Tom, drawling his words somewhat to leave no doubt that he wasn’t a Spaniard.

“Buenos días. No tienes frío?”

“Frío, no,” he said, although he did feel a little chilly in his vest and shorts down in the breezy ravine.

The man nodded and might have walked on, but Tom decided to spill the beans and gauge the friendly-looking fellow’s reaction.

“I’m staying in a little cave up there,” he said in Spanish, before pointing to the pine tree that partly concealed the entrance.

“Up there?” he asked, looking puzzled and amused.

“Yes, I’m Tom. I’m from England.”

“I’m Raúl, from the village over there,” the wiry man of about thirty said, before offering Tom his hand. “So there’s a cave up there, is there?”

“Yes, a small one that I found one day,” Tom tried to say, before launching into a hurried explanation of his movements and motives, which must have sounded something like this:

“I am postman in England. My father die, so I sell house and come to Spain. I want to live alone some weeks. I need to think.” Tom tapped his head and smiled. “Next week I go to village to buy food and speak to people.”

Raúl nodded, smiled and looked around him pointedly.

“So you like this countryside?”

“It is dry, but it is quiet, and here I find a cave.”

“Can I see it?”

“Yes, of course,” said Tom, before leading the way up the slope.

At times, while sitting in the cave entrance obscured by the pine tree, he had thought he might go unnoticed for weeks, but Raúl’s request produced a pleasant tingle of anticipation which belied any real desire for anonymity. This approachable man would no doubt spread the news of the English eccentric, and was it not better for this to happen sooner rather than later? If the Guardia Civil came the next day to move him on, so be it, but at least he would know where he stood.

“Be careful with your head, Raúl,” he said, before entering and quickly lighting three candles. When he turned to face him, he beheld an expression which combined wonder and amusement.

“What a nice little cave! Very dry too. I must have walked past here fifty times and I’ve never seen it.”

“It is difficult to see from the… river,” Tom said, unable to recall the word for stream.

“El arroyo, sí, but soon it will be dry.”

“Really?”

“Yes, it rained a lot in March, so there is water, but in two, maybe three weeks it will be dry,” Raúl said, his look of sympathy suggesting that he believed that Tom intended to stay, maybe through necessity.

“Are there any other… streams near here that will have water for more time?” Tom asked, disinclined to diminish Raúl’s expectations of him.

“Maybe one to the south, fifteen or twenty minutes’ walk from here, but by June it will be dry too, I think.”

“I have this,” Tom said, pointing to his five litre water container.

“Ha, you look strong, so maybe you can carry water from the village,” Raúl said, pointing from the container to the rucksack. “And you’ll be able to bathe in the village pool in summer.”

So he really does think I’m here to stay, Tom thought, and who am I to disappoint him?

“That is a good idea. But, do you think the people in the village will… will they think it all right for me to be here?”

“Why not? It’s a free country and you bother no-one. Besides, very few people come this way; me and one or two more people who like walking.”

“And the… people who hunt?” he asked, pleased that Raúl was speaking slowly and clearly.

“Not until the autumn, and there’s little to hunt around here nowadays. In winter you may be cold.”

“Yes, but I hope the cave will…”

“Maintain its temperature?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm, that’s the case with big caves, but here, when the temperature drops below zero, you’ll be cold,” he said, pointing and sketching out the shape of the doorway. “Here we’re over seven hundred metres above sea level, you know.”

“Oh, in winter I think I will be somewhere else,” Tom said, thinking it best to disabuse Raúl of the idea that he planned to live out his days in the cave. “So you live in the village?”

“Yes, but I’m a lorry driver, so I’m away much of the time. I go to Germany and sometimes Denmark. Anyway, I must get back home for lunch now. My wife will be waiting for me.”

“OK,” said Tom, who had been about to offer him coffee. “I will walk with you some way.”

“Good, we can talk.” Raúl smiled and strolled around the cave nodding. “A good cave for me as I’m not so tall. An interesting chair, but you need some more furniture, I think,” he said with a laugh.

“Yes, maybe, if I stay,” Tom said, the lure of civilisation seeming to grasp him around the neck.

He pulled on a fleece top before leading the way back down to the stream. The two men walked in silence for a while, each wondering what the other was thinking.

“Do you have family?” Raúl asked as they left the stream and climbed the path to the next gully.

“My mother is in New Zealand.”

“Oh, a long way from here.”

“I have aunts and uncles in England, and friends.”

“So why come here?”

“Oh, the weather is better here and my life was boring.”

“More boring than alone in a cave?”

“I want a complete change. I have some money, so I want to live in a different way.”

“How?”

“To live without so many things. No cars or computers. To live a more simple life.”

“What will you do all day?”

“I don’t know. I am only in the cave for two days.”

“Ha, a very new experience,” Raúl said, patting him on the shoulder. “It’s interesting. I wouldn’t do it, but it’s interesting.”

“Do you have children, Raúl?”

“Two, a boy and a girl, of six and four.”

“That’s nice,” Tom said, thinking about Sue.

“And you?”

“No, no children.”

“There’s the village ahead. Do you know it?”

“Not yet.”

“Come to lunch then. My wife always makes too much food.”

“Thank you, Raúl, but not today.”

“As you wish.”

“I want to stay in the cave for one week before I go to the village.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said with a chuckle.

“Ha, you English people are strange! There’s one English lady in the village and she’s a little strange.” He laughed and shook his head.

“Is she the only foreigner?”

“No, there’s also a couple from Belgium and some more people who have cave houses and come on holiday. Foreign people like the cave houses.”

“Do you not like them?”

“They’re nice, but too dark to live in, I think. Listen, you must come to lunch next weekend. Sunday will be best. I’ll come to the cave at about one o’clock and we’ll walk back together.”

“Yes, yes, I would like that. Thank you, Raúl,” he said effusively, relieved not to be losing touch with this kindly chap due to his daft compulsion to go it alone for a week.

Raúl stopped, turned, and held out his hand, which Tom grasped gratefully. “Well, enjoy your week of solitude. I hope you begin to find what you’re looking for.”

“Me too. Until next Sunday, Raúl, and thank you.”

“Ha, you haven’t tried my wife’s cooking yet. Adiós, Tom, and take care.” 

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Here is the first month of Ernest Postlethwaite’s groundbreaking Spanish Journal:

Introduction by Pamela Postlethwaite

This diary, written by my late husband, Ernest Postlethwaite, has been published expressly against his wishes, but with the full and hearty endorsement of my family and friends.
   He did originally intend the diary, or ‘journal’, as he preferred to call it, to be published. Being a man of fixed ideas but very changeable temperament, I have interpreted his final utterance, “that blessed diary,” as I have deemed most appropriate. The fact that these words were his last, apart from incoherent ramblings regarding documents, goats and relatives, indicates that his sole written work was foremost in his mind until the very end. It also suggests that he may have had a last minute change of heart regarding publication; ‘blessed’, after all, has more positive than negative connotations.
   One rather clever family friend considers the diary, or journal, to be a historical document of the highest importance. “An anthropological delight,” I recall him saying. He read it four times and told me that each reading brought more tears to the eye than the last. He suggested subtitling the work, A Study of the Cross-Cultural Aspirations of a Middle-Class Englishman in the Early Twenty-first Century, but I thought it rather long-winded and eventually chose a more fitting subtitle myself.
   I leave you with this unadulterated transcript* of the first six months of the diary that Ernest kept diligently from November 2007 and hope that you are moved by it as much as we all were.

Pamela Postlethwaite,
Javea,
Spain
December 2012

* Including all his additional annotations (in parenthesis).

 

 

PART ONE – INTEGRATION

Thursday 1st November 2007

   I am writing my first journal entry from the terrace of my house in Puebla de Don Arsenio, Alicante, Spain. A solemn moment! Today, I have read on the internet, is ‘The Day of the Dead’ here in Spain, but I myself feel very much alive, having at last cast off the shackles of the commuter’s life. A life, it must be said, that has put me in the enviable financial position of enabling us to sell up and start a new life here at the relatively young ages of 54 (me) and 52 (Pamela). Pamela’s mother dying so suddenly cemented our financial security and I handed in my notice at the office a month after the funeral.
   I intend to faithfully record all the details, or minutiae, as Pamela might say, of my new life, with a view to passing on all my acquired knowledge in the not too distant future. I am drinking a glass of Bordeaux that has not travelled well and Pamela is measuring the windows for curtains. We have traditional Spanish shutters, I tell her, to no avail.
   We bought this noble old house on the edge of the village in order to integrate more fully with the local people, while still keeping a generous plot of land for growing vegetables. I intend us to become self-sufficient in this respect and Pamela is all for me trying.
   We were not attracted to the ‘expat’ life of sun and sangria, but to one of tilling the land, learning the language, and integrating. We are far enough away from the sea to avoid having English-speaking neighbours, I think. I searched thoroughly for the house on the internet and managed to push the price down considerably. I always drive a hard bargain and imagine that the estate agency I dealt with made very little, if any, profit. We got a lot of house and land for our money – far more than had we followed the droves down to the coast – and ‘swimming pool’ are two words that do not form part of my vocabulary – unless I use them separately, of course, or when referring to public bathing establishments or suchlike. Land is for production, not for swimming in.

 

Friday 2nd November 

   One hour of Spanish grammar duly studied before settling down with a glass of wine to write my journal. A different bottle but the same acidic taste. I wish I had left my modest wine reserve in the house on Swinburne Crescent now. The man who bought our house ogled it so, that had he not haggled in such a petty manner about the price, I would have made him a gift of it.
   A young Scotch person called Andy came round this morning while I was in Villeda, the capital of the borough, sorting out paperwork with the interpreter, whose services I won’t require for very much longer. I hoped that Pamela hadn’t been too welcoming as she knows that I wish to avoid over-fraternisation (look up) with any foreign elements. She said that she hadn’t, but that he had seemed very nice, and I said that I was sure that he was. She still insists on the curtains. I have started digging over the plot of land, as I intend to avoid the use of expensive and unnecessary machinery. It is very hard and dry and I only managed about a square yard. On the upside, there aren’t many weeds to worry about. Sore hands now, making it difficult to hold the pen. I will make a more thorough journal entry tomorrow.

 

Saturday 3rd November

   Raining today. Excellent news for the land! It should also make it easier to dig. The Scotsman called round again this morning with some eggs. When I asked him if he had grown them himself, Pamela burst out laughing. The Scotsman knew that I meant the hens and that I had used the verb loosely.  He told me that he had several good layers and a feisty cock. It appears that he lives on a ‘finca’ just outside the village and has been here for eight years. I thanked him and he soon left.
   After studying Spanish grammar for an hour, I looked over the paperwork for the house. It appears that the house and the plot are separate entities, although previously owned by the same person. The interpreter, who the Town Hall recommended, says that there are one or two small points to clear up  regarding the land, but that I shouldn’t worry. I won’t worry. I’m not a worrier.
   Pamela drove into town to do the weekly shop and also purchased a roll of material for the curtains. “Tasteful, but unnecessary,” I said, and was ignored. Pamela is not as diligent in her grammar studies as I, but says that her knowing French will help. I don’t see why it should, it being a different language, but she just said, “Espera y verás.” I looked that up and it means ‘wait and see’. I will revise the future tenses in bed tonight.

 

Sunday 4th November

   Sunny again today and I resumed my digging, using gloves. I had little time for gardening in England and I will harden my hands little by little. The Scotsman called round and interrupted my work. He offered me the use of a small rotavator to plough the land, but I declined. He said it would take me weeks to do it by hand and I must say that yesterday’s rain has not made it any easier to dig. The water must have rolled straight down the slope and onto the track – such a waste. The Scotsman’s parting shot was, “piss on your hands,” which I thought rather uncouth. Another square yard dug over.
   After lunch I ventured to the village bar to have coffee, having checked the correct time to do so on the internet. Pamela offered to accompany me, but I insisted that we avoid going everywhere together and being considered ‘that foreign couple’. The bar is very rustic and smoky and the customers, all men, were very attentive, I must say. They all looked at me as I entered and responded to my, “Buenas tardes,”replying likewise or with friendly grunts and growls. They were all still looking at me as I ordered a coffee with milk in the correct manner. The young waiter seemed a little slow to respond – a little soft in the head, I suspect – but eventually produced the coffee, which was excellent. I drank my coffee at the bar, like a local, and noticed that I was still attracting considerable attention. The novelty of seeing a foreigner, I suppose, although I had made a point of wearing my espadrilles. Nobody else was wearing them, I noticed. I failed to strike up a conversation today, but will persevere. One hour of grammar after dinner.

 

 Monday 5th November

   Getting up time is an issue which I shall have to address. In my former life I arose at 6.35am midweek and at 7.55am on Saturdays and Sundays and I fully intended to adhere to those times here. I have not retired, but merely swapped the suit of the commuter for the rugged attire of one who intends to work the land and be as one with his rustic neighbours. Having said that, it was chilly this morning and I found myself pacing round the plot to keep warm until the sun appeared. Pamela has determined to rise no earlier than half past eight, which, as she always worked part-time and locally, will be no great wrench to her customs. Until the end of winter I shall rise every day at my weekend hour. This is not sloth, merely expediency.
   Pamela returned from the village with our daily bread and told me she had met a lady from Essex. I must have looked downcast, as she then told me that the lady and her ‘partner’ (meaning not married) only use their holiday home two or three times a year. Seeing me cheer up, Pamela then told me that the lady, Tracy by name, knew several more British couples who live in the area. This is not what I desired or expected and made me feel quite low while I was digging today’s square yard. I only managed half an hour’s grammar; prepositions – most confusing. I wish they would stick to the rules. I uncorked a bottle of wine that has survived the move, which cheered me up a bit, and the Scotsman didn’t call round today.

 

Tuesday 6th November

   When I returned from the Town Hall, I heard mechanical noises from the rear of the house and rushed through to catch the Scotsman in fraglanti, mechanically ploughing my plot with Pamela looking on, doing nothing to stop him. I was about to protest, but on seeing his lightening progress compared to me and my spade, I retreated unseen into the house and saved my remonstrations for when he had begun the last run up the slope. My feeble protests were a failure, as my joy upon seeing the beautifully churned up land obviously belied my stern expression. Pamela kissed me and Andy said that I could now stop pissing on my hands. I pointed out that I had never started and went to uncork another bottle of the well-travelled wine. If we must have one foreign friend, I suppose we could make a worse choice than Andy and, as a vote of confidence, I shall stop referring to him as ‘The Scotsman’ in this journal.
   I shall now open my horticulture book and see what I can plant tomorrow.

 

Wednesday 7th November

   I was up until 2 o’clock last night, translating unknown words from the horticulture book – about three-quarters of them. After breakfast, I took a cup of tea and a chair out to the terrace which looks onto the plot and tried to decide where to put the garlic, radishes, broad beans and onions that my book allows me to plant here in November. I may seek help from a knowledgeable local person, as I am not sure what part of each vegetable I should plant. The seeds? Little onions? Little beans? The book is not clear about this and I cannot find a local plant nursery on the internet, only ones for small children. Perhaps these people are still sufficiently in touch with the soil to have no need for such establishments.  I will prepare my questions and ask the neighbours to our left, who I have yet to introduce myself to and have a well-tended plot. The neighbours to our right; a young, swarthy couple, spend all their time indoors, often with music playing, and have two old cars and other assorted junk on their plot. This is a shame and an eyesore. I will have words with them when I become more articulate in Spanish.

 

Thursday 8th November

   Andy called round with some olives while I was sitting in the sun with my grammar book. I had been finding it difficult to concentrate on my irregular participles, as the beauty of my plot distracted me. The earth is beckoning my seed and I think that I am finding a long lost bondage with the land reawakening in my urbanised soul. (Good sentence, but find alternative to bondage.) I don’t like olives, but I believe they are an acquired taste and I mean to acquire it. Likewise with garlic and olive oil. Also Spanish cheese, cured ham, dried cod, and anchovies.
   I refrained from asking Andy’s advice on horticultural matters, as I fear he may have considerable knowledge and impart it all to me in English. I would rather have it from the horse’s mouth – meaning a Spanish peasant’s mouth, and I don’t mean peasant in a demeaning way. I am already preparing the questions that I intend to ask our neighbours to the left.
   Pamela has been busy all day making up the curtains. They are of a greeny-white pattern and would certainly look very handsome in an English house. At least they match the shutters.

 

Friday 9th November

   I called on the neighbours to our left this morning, an aged couple. I started in with, “Good morning. I am your new neighbour,” (in Spanish) and they appeared to understand this. I then introduced myself and asked them how they were, using the formal ‘Usted’ pronoun as we are not yet close friends. They then introduced themselves and asked me how I was, and I responded correctly. He is called Nora – a strange name for a man and one which I shall look up – and she Angeles. (‘Anggelees’ – throat clearing sound on the ‘g’.) Angeles then showed me round the entire house, upstairs and down, talking very quickly all the while. I understood her reasonably well, mainly through her gestures and facial expressions. I am discovering that reading Spanish and listening to it are very different things. On returning to the rustic living room, Nora took me in hand and led me through the very rustic kitchen to his plot. I took the list of questions from my shirt pocket and asked him what he was growing on his land. On retrospect, the question was a little foolish, as I could see the tomatoes, peppers, lettuces and cauliflowers from where we stood. He told me anyway, speaking much more slowly than his wife, almost as if I were an idiot, for which I was grateful (for him speaking slowly). He also pointed out where the potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and something called ‘nabos’ had been sown and showed me his cherry, plum and almond trees. By this time, my brain was hurting through the sheer weight of foreign language being poured into it and I decided to save my specific questions for another day. During our final, somewhat one-way, exchange, I understood that Angeles is rather keen to meet Pamela and I indicated, through single words and arm movements, that she would soon call round.
   A large glass of Bordeaux helped me to recover my senses and, once more serene, I smile as I write my journal. This has, after all, been a watershed day; my first real verbal intercourse with the people of my new country! ‘Nabos’ are turnips.

 

Saturday 10th November

   Pamela called round to see Nora and Angeles this morning. I insisted that she went alone, in order to establish herself as herself and not just as ‘the Englishman’s wife’ (‘la inglesa esposa’, I think) and she was more than happy to do so. She returned two hours later with Angeles and gave her a tour of the house. I followed at a discrete distance and listened to Angeles’s stream of unintelligible talk. Pamela responded occasionally with comments and questions, so she must have understood a few words.
   I went to the bar for coffee with two conversation-starting phrases written on my hand: ‘El tiempo es bonito’ – ‘The weather is nice,’ and, ‘Tengo 54 anos’ – ‘I am 54’. The same dim waiter smirked from within his smoke cloud when I ordered my coffee in the correct manner. I addressed my first phrase to a man dressed in blue overalls at the bar and I think he said that he wished for rain. I said, “Sí,” because I too will need rain for my plot. On following up with my second phrase, he sprayed coffee from his mouth, had a fit of coughing, and rushed out of the bar. I was so concerned that I went to the door of the bar, only to see him driving away on his tractor, still coughing and bouncing up and down. Pamela pointed out later that ‘ano’ means anus; I had forgotten about the squiggly accent. She was kind enough not to laugh, knowing how much my Spanish means to me, so I also told her how I ordered the coffee. She thinks that a native would understand my question as, ‘Can I possess a coffee?’ but I am more concerned about the anus. I am almost sure that nobody else in the bar heard me. He drove a red tractor.

 

Sunday 11th November

   Today was a better day than yesterday. Nora (short for Honorario – still strange) came round with a plastic bag and ushered me out to the plot. He showed me some beans and made a scrabbling motion. I brought the spade and he shook his head and left. He returned with what I took to be an extremely large hoe and said, “asada, asada” (spelt ‘azada’ I later discovered). He started to scrape out a furrow and gave me a thumbs up sign. I returned the thumbs up sign, but wish he had asked me where I wanted to plant the beans. He placed three beans in the furrow, making exaggerated motions with his hands and nodding. He covered the beans, nodding and smiling at me all the while. He did not speak throughout the process and I still think he thinks I am an idiot. I said ‘bien’ several times to show that I am not. I may turn to Andy for future guidance as at least he will let me choose where to place each item. When Nora left, with a short ‘adiós’, I completed the furrow – approximately twenty-two yards long – and felt like my own man again. I will buy my own ‘azada’, and a trowel too.
   Angeles came to help Pamela with the curtains and kept up a constant stream of chatter – quite the opposite of her husband. Pamela says she is bossy, but is good for her listening comprehension. I said that Nora is good for my miming comprehension, which I thought rather funny. One and a half hours of grammar. No sign of Andy today.

 

Monday 12th November

   Andy called round this morning and responded to my, “Long time no see,” with, “I didn’t want you to think I was an interfering f**ker.” When he sees that I don’t swear, he will soon stop blaspheming in my presence, I think. He had brought some beans in a bag and I showed him the furrow. He said it was long but straight. I think he meant too long, but that is a question of taste. We decided together where to plant the garlic, radishes and onions. He said it was a bit late for potatoes, but I will give them a go anyway. We decided together where to plant some trees. He suggested a couple each of cherry, plum and pear trees to begin with, and that he had some one-year-olds I could transplant. I offered to pay him for them but he refused, so it is not true what they say about Scotsmen; not this one anyway. Andy is married to a local lady called Ana, which is good news. He refers to her as ‘Ella indoors’, and it is true that we have yet to meet her.
   One hour of grammar, followed by some sentence practice on Pamela. I am astonished at how much Spanish she knows, although she always was a clever woman. Some people have a gift for languages and it is too early to say if I have that gift too.

 

Martes 13th Noviembre

   I will change the date back to English before the journal is published, to cater for uninitiated readers, as well as polishing up my prose and removing this sentence. The Red Tractor was outside my usual bar, so I tried the other one. My saying, “Póngame un café con leche, por favor,” went down very well, although saying, ‘Put me a coffee with milk, please,’ sounds very odd to me. I don’t know how they can justify such a construction, grammatically speaking. It did, however, produce a stream of questions from the fat, friendly young waitress, which I tried my best to respond to. I understood words like ‘casa’ and ‘pueblo’ and feel that I am making some progress, although I still need to make much use of my arms and face to make myself understood. The bar also seems a little more civilised – it has a sit down toilet – and less full of smoke than the other one. I may make it my ‘local’.
   I have just realised that Pamela is doing all the shopping and thus benefiting from increased verbal intercourse. She says that I may go to purchase the bread each day from now on. I am getting to grips with the azada and did one furrow gloveless. I planted the garlic cloves as Andy indicated and, by the time it is ready, I will have acquired a taste for it, I am sure.
   One hour of grammar (past simple) and more sentence testing with Pamela. I will avoid questions for now, as they produce long, rapid answers which I don’t understand. Even asking the girl at the bar if she lived here produced a torrent of words. It was, I thought, a very simple question.
   No Andy or Nora today, although Angeles talked Pamela through two curtains. Pamela says she finds her tiresome but useful. I thought they were becoming good friends, but am rather glad they might not be. Angeles’s voice penetrates all walls.

 

Miércoles, 14 de Noviembre (sic)

   Another sunny day, but quite cold this morning. It will soon be time to try out the wood-burning stove. Pamela had suggested we install central heating, but I felt it was not necessary in this mild climate. Nora called round this morning as I was planting potatoes and shook his finger and grasped his arms around his body to imply cold. He appears to have lost the power of speech, although I heard him talking to Pamela in the kitchen. He disapproves of my long row of beans (shaking of head, arms in the air), but I don’t see what difference it makes. Probably a question of asthetics (check spelling). I hope it will rain soon and water my plot.
   Andy called round with the one-year-old trees and invited us to lunch on Saturday. Our first visit and a semi-native one, as his wife is not a foreigner! I planted the plum trees without gloves and watered the beans with the watering can, making several trips. I will buy a hosepipe next time I am in town. One hour of adjectives.

 

Jueves, 15 de Noviembre

   Colder this morning. I went to the bakery to buy the bread; long ‘barras’ of bread; the sliced bread is awful anyway. The bakery was full of women and there was no queue, so I did not know where to stand.  Another woman came in and asked a question and several ladies pointed at me. I felt quite self-conscious, being the only man present and not understanding the question. Yet another woman came in and asked the same question and the previous woman said, “Yo,” (meaning ‘I’, or ‘me’). This formula was repeated by each new arrival until I finally deduced that they were asking who was last in the ‘queue’. Pamela, who has more shopping experience than I, says that this is standard procedure. It will take some getting used to, but at least you can move freely around the shop while you wait. It relies more on honesty than on maintaining a fixed physical position and, as soon as you are no longer the last person (‘el último’), you can relax. It wouldn’t work in London.
   Pamela has almost finished sewing the curtains and says that her patience with Angeles is also coming to an end. She is now fed up, she says, of hearing about her grandchildren and of her own comments being ignored. Pamela is very patient; one of the most patient people I know, so she must be being tried very sorely. Angeles also walks in without knocking, which may or may not be the custom here, but is unsettling all the same, especially when she is wearing her pink dressing gown and matching flip-flops.
   I planted the radishes where Andy and I had decided, and watered them. No rain or any sign of rain on the internet. One hour of adverbs – quite easy.

 

Viernes, 16 de Noviembre

   Cold and sunny again this morning, so I decided to try lighting the wood-burning stove. I brought in some logs that had been left on the terrace by the previous owner, before realising that I had no kindling of any description. The logs were practically weightless and crumbled in my hands, so when I went for my post-lunch coffee in the clean bar, I told the waitress that I wanted some wood. “Quiero madera,” were my actual words, but she looked perplexed, so I did such miming of wood chopping and fire lighting that I felt quite like Nora. She said, “Ah! Quieres leña!” and gave me a card for the wood supplier in Spanish, English and German; most disappointing. So there are different words for wood for making things out of, and firewood, which I consider annoying and unnecessary. Pamela rang the number on the card and, at my request, ordered the firewood in Spanish.
   Pamela also pointed out that we have no television. I said that I was aware of this and she said that it would be useful for practising our listening comprehension. I agreed that this was so, but she then gave her true intentions away by telling me that Andy had a satellite dish. Having weaned her off EastEnders, which she is far too well-read to watch, I put my foot down most firmly. I agreed to the television, but not to the satellite dish, and she acquiesced. I hope this is not the thin end of one of Pamela’s wedges. Pamela can be cunning and thinks she knows how to ‘play’ me. I am not as obtuse as she says I sometimes seem.

 

Sábado, 17 de Novienbre

   Sunny yet again. This is fine for the expats, but not for a man, and his wife, wishing to live off the land. I planted the onions and the cherry and pear trees this morning. I made a lot of trips with the watering can and my arms were heavy on the steering wheel as we drove to Andy’s.
   Andy’s wife, Ana, is very pretty and greeted us in Spanish, which I appreciated. They live in a lovely bungalow surrounded by land and outhouses, and keep four goats, three pigs, many hens and some cocks. They have an abundance of fruit and nut trees (expand on this when know names of them), olive trees, and a huge vegetable plot.
   Ana had made a traditional Sunday roast – on a Saturday – and, although I would have preferred Spanish fare, it was delicious. The conversation moved imperceptibly into English as we ate, and I must say that Andy is a very lucky man; as lucky as I. Ana is a schoolteacher in Villeda and Andy tends the finca and does occasional odd jobs of an agricultural nature. Andy was quiet and well-mannered during the lunch and allowed his better half to host proceedings. He has made a very good match, although I see that I have implied this already.
   After lunch, Andy took me on a tour of the finca while Ana and Pamela chatted over the washing up. He said that the goats had names, as they were milch goats, but the pigs did not, as they were ‘for scoffing’. He pointed out the next one to be slaughtered and invited us to attend. He said that Ana’s father would ‘stick the bugger’ and also said that I would find the whole slaughtering and post-slaughter activity instructive. I said I was sure that I would, and accepted the invitation. As a lifelong meat-eater, I cannot be squeamish about such things. The doomed pig was very friendly and seemed to smile.
   This is the longest entry so far, and justly so. I must record all significant details for future readers. A journal is not a mere diary. I am sleepy now (6.32pm) after the heavy lunch, but it is too late for a siesta, which I haven’t learnt how to take yet, but will. Commuters don’t take siestas, although some do doze off on the train, always seeming to wake up moments before their stop. Uncanny (and irrelevant).

 

Domingo, 18 de Noviembre

   It hasn’t rained now for two weeks and is becoming a cause for concern. I saw Nora over the wall and he mimed at great length the lack of and need for rain. When we invite them to dinner, which Pamela says we must do, like it or not, I may suggest a game of charades. My manual watering is improving my upper-body strength, but it takes me two hours to get round all the items on my plot, and by the time I have finished, the first furrows are dry again. Am I penetrating to my seeds, cloves, roots etc.? I don’t know. I will get a hosepipe tomorrow when I go into town. Pamela also wants me to look for some curtain rails and gave me measurements. I told her that I doubt that they exist in this country of window shutters, but that I will try. Half an hour of conjunctions and half an hour of horticultural and curtain vocabulary.

 

Lunes, 19 de Noviembre

   I drove into town alone this morning as Pamela will go in to do the weekly shop tomorrow. The internet told me that the ‘Ferretería’ is the place to go for hardware and all sundry things that you cannot buy in other shops. I parked my car – a Spanish model – on a side street and asked the first person I saw for directions to a ‘Ferretería’, remembering to roll the double ‘r’ by making the tongue vibrate. I find that either no ‘r’s or about seven come out. I practise with important words like ‘perro’ (dog) and ‘barra’ (bar, stick) and will improve ‘poco a poco’ (little by little). If this journal were not intended for publication in the English-speaking world, I would probably find it turning ‘poco a poco’ into Spanish!
   I followed the directions correctly and found my way to the large ‘Ferretería’. The long counter was like that of a bar and men lolled on it as if it were a bar. There was no queue and, when I asked who the ‘último’ was, one man shrugged and turned his back on me. The four assistants moved very leisurely and listened patiently to the men’s lengthy requests. The old man next to me flourished a small, rusty hinge and talked for an age while opening it, closing it, spitting on it and twisting it. The assistant eventually produced quite a different hinge and the man left happily. My request for ‘railes de cortina’ was not understood and much miming ensued. He finally produced a long wooden pole with some rings on, which I bought. Hosepipe requested correctly and supplied.
   Pamela, after spending many hours sewing on traditional curtain hooks, which she says I must have seen her doing, was not impressed by the pole and the rings and immediately sat down at the computer to order some curtain rails from B&Q. The postage would be expensive, I told her, and added that I would find a use, probably horticultural, for the pole and rings.
   An hour of present tense – mere revision.

 

Martes, 20 de Noviembre

   Rain at last! I sat under the little veranda on the terrace, watching the rain soak into the ground and preparing some sentences to say to Nora. I intend to confront his miming with a barrage of topical, well-constructed phrases. I ran the sentences past Pamela and we made some minor adjustments. After a light lunch, I returned to the terrace to learn them off by heart. At the time of writing I have memorised seven, which are (in English):

   The rain is good for the plants.
   Spanish bread is good, but goes hard quickly.
   In England I worked in an office.
   My friend Andy is Scottish.
   I used to play golf, but have given it up.
   I like Spanish people.
   My wife, Pamela, is a good cook.

   This last sentence is to be closely followed by an invitation to dinner on Friday night. I practised reciting my lines to Pamela as she cleaned the kitchen, until she silenced me by saying that she hoped I hadn’t forgotten that she wanted a television. I haven’t forgotten.

 

Miércoles, 21 de Noviembre

   Still raining! Great news, but has made for a dreary day. I revised my sentences in the morning and went to my usual bar for coffee. I was dismayed to find two uncouth, tattooed, bevested (look up) Englishmen drinking beer at the bar and talking at the tops of their voices. I sidled into a corner and picked up the Spanish newspaper, to no avail, as one of them hollered, “you English, pal?” I could but nod, and they were around me in a flash with their beery breath and northern accents. How they knew I was English, I do not know. They – Gary and Mark by name – are builders and are “makin’ a killing doin’ up Brits’ ‘ouses” (Gary’s words, not mine). They asked me if I needed any building work doing and I told them that my house was in first class shape when I bought it (which was true) and that I always dealt with local tradesmen (which is not, yet). I left as soon as I had finished my coffee and am sure that I heard one of them say ‘snotty f**ker’ when I reached the street.
   Feeling low as I write this. Not due to meeting riff-raff, but to the fact that they have a lot of work with other ‘Brits’. I will invite Nora and Angeles to dinner tomorrow – we have to start our integration process somewhere.

 

Jueves, 22 de Noviembre

   More rain. I revised my sentences, adding ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ as an opener, before calling on our neighbours. I wished them, “Buenos días,” and, without giving them a chance to speak or mime, I said, “Está lloviendo gatos y perros.” Their reaction was unexpected. Angeles said, “Gatos? perros? gatos? perros?” countless times, while Nora barked and shook his head. I had no stomach for my remaining phrases and silenced them with my dinner invitation. This was comprehended but refused. We, I understood, are to come to lunch with them tomorrow. I agreed and left.
   Pamela thought that it did not rain cats and dogs in Spanish. She looked up the equivalent phrase, which means ‘raining pitchers’ or ‘raining jugs’, and told me that idiomatic expressions are different in each language. She then told me what idiomatic expressions are.
   The last two days have not been easy ones for me. ‘Slings and arrows’ seem to have been coming at me thick and fast. I didn’t expect the transition to Spanish life to be easy, so I will grin and bear it. I may be grinning and bearing a lot at lunch with Nora and Angeles tomorrow.

 

Viernes, 23 de Noviembre

   The rain continues. Three weeds have appeared on the plot, but I can’t get at them, as the soil is so completely saturated. I must purchase some wellington boots, something I did not think I would ever need here. The internet informs me that the rain will cease this afternoon. I revised my sentences before going next door. I added ‘the rain will stop this afternoon’ to my repertoire.
   The lunch was more a success than a failure. From a culinary point of view, I was able to face and partially conquer my demons. I battled through my share of the oil and vinegar-drenched salad and ate four olives. I ate two slices of cured ham, with bread. Angeles had made a paella (difficult to say properly: ‘payelya’) over a wood fire in the yard, which was very rustic and tasty. I squeezed a garlic clove with my fork and ate the contents to no ill effect. I can still taste it now, despite having cleaned my teeth twice. From a conversational point of view, the lunch was a great success. I doggedly inserted my phrases into Angeles’s babble, and Pamela was kind enough to follow them up and, as she said later, “put them into some sort of context.” Nora mimed somewhat less, but is still unable to address me directly. ‘Poco a poco’ he will come round.
   I am feeling much cheered this evening as I sip a glass from the last of the unruined bottles. I can now stock up on Riojas and other fine Spanish wines!

 

Sábado, 24 de Noviembre

   A sunny day and very warm by Spanish, and our, lunchtime – 2pm. This morning I was able to pad across the still soggy plot in my espadrilles and pick the weeds (7). I wanted to do some gardening work, but there is nothing to do but wait. I can almost feel my seeds germinating! My hosepipe is not yet operational, as I forgot to buy the thing that connects it to the tap. I have added it to my ‘Ferretería’ list.
   Feeling emotionally strong after yesterday’s successful lunch, I decided to have coffee in the ‘campesino’ (peasant: non-derogatory) bar again. The Red Tractor was outside, but I did not flinch. I entered, sat down next to the tractor owner at the bar, and said to him, “Tengo 54 años” (‘anyyyos’ – to leave no room for doubt). He said, “bien, bien,” shook my hand, and ordered me a ‘café con leche’. I followed up with some of my stock phrases and he responded in an agreeable manner (70/30: speech/mime – an acceptable ratio). He shook my hand warmly again as I left. He was in no hurry to leave as he is probably experiencing the same dearth of agricultural labours to do as myself. This fruitful encounter shows that the forthright, confident approach is the way forward in my quest for integration. ‘Don’t be shy, Ernest,’ will be my motto!
   Pamela tells me that she got into conversation with a local lady she met at the bakery, me having forgotten to go, who then invited her back to her house for coffee and more chatter. I don’t feel that I can actually ‘chat’ yet, but I am pleased for her. We each blaze our independent integration trails, which will no doubt intertwine at some point, as the village – of 424 ‘habitantes’, the internet tells me – is small.

 

Domingo, 25 de Noviembre

   A sunny day and the first appearance of a bean sprout! While I was delighting in this, I saw the right-hand neighbour in his plot/scrapyard for the first time. He was talking on a mobile telephone and smoking what I suspected to be a ‘joint’. Despite this, I waved and said, “Hola.” He waved back absently before retreating indoors. I mentioned this encounter to Pamela, who I know partook of the occasional ‘joint’ at university, but not since meeting me, and she said, “Each to their own.” I am still not altogether happy about this revelation and hope he does not consume other more heinous drugs as well. There are only three houses on our row and, if a third of them are already disreputable, I fear the worst. Nora and Angeles will hopefully live for a long time yet.
   I have added three questions to my stock of phrases:

   ‘Have you lived here long?’
   ‘What do you do?’ and,
   ‘Have you planted much this year?’

   When I feel that my phrases are going down well, I will insert a question and hope that I understand the answer. I spent half an hour eliciting different answers to these questions from Pamela, until she tired of it and put on Beethoven’s Ninth quite loudly.

 

Lunes, 26 de Noviembre

   A cloudy day. The beans are now sprouting in force and I believe the potatoes are breaking through too! The internet tells me that the radishes should also be making an appearance, but they have not done so yet. I removed some new weeds after a breakfast of ‘tostadas’ (toast) with butter and jam. This is typical Spanish breakfast fare and will replace the Weetabix which has run out. We had already finished the Branston Pickle, brown sauce, cheddar cheese and Marks & Spencer salad dressing, and I am glad. I have forbidden Pamela from buying any of these foreign articles on the internet. (‘Forbidden’ is too strong, and inaccurate, a word. Change for, ‘urged her not to buy.’)
   I drove into town and made a beeline for the ‘Ferretería’. Before taking my place at the crowded counter, I toured the aisles and began to wish that I hadn’t insisted on the house being restored to the very highest standard; a requirement forming part of the extremely hard bargain that I drove. There are so many things that I would like to buy, doorknobs for one, but cannot justify. I bought the coupling for the hosepipe, a pair of wellington boots, a screwdriver, a torch, and some tape, but I will return with a better list.
   Today at the counter an old man was flourishing a small bulb and waxing lyrical. The assistant nodded politely for about two minutes and then bobbed down quickly and produced a new bulb. The old man was cut off in mid-flow, took some coppers from his purse and laid them on the counter, and trudged out. Perhaps there is a time limit for each person. I already had all my items, so I quickly composed a phrase: “These wellington boots are good for the rain,” but only received a blank stare. I will hover near another assistant next time.
   Pamela tells me that she has been chatting with her new friend again today. I need a friend to chat to. Ninety minutes of miscellaneous grammar and I also practised my double-Rs in front of the mirror. Pamela asked me why I was calling myself a dog, so I must have been getting it right.

 

Martes, 27 de Noviembre

   A cold night and a cold, sunny morning. Pamela complained of this and, as if by chance, the wood supplier (‘hombre de leña?’) arrived! He brought large logs, smaller logs and kindling, and dumped it all outside the front door. The price was not low but there is a large amount, which I am sure will last us through the short winter. In this respect, it is not expensive. I spent the whole morning carrying the wood through the house to the sheltered part of the terrace. Pamela seems to have resumed bread buying duties, as it is at the bakery where she meets her new friend. She was out for two hours; two whole hours of integration! I am a little ‘piqued’, but must not hold her back. I went to the rustic bar for coffee, but my tractor driving friend was not there. Nobody seemed willing to converse, so I read the paper for a while. I understand more and more, but it is just not the same as speech.
   I lit the wood-burning stove this evening after creating a structure of paper, kindling and medium logs, from the bottom up. At the third attempt and the second rebuild, it took hold, briefly filled the ‘salón’ with smoke, and then began to produce a remarkable heat. Pamela was impressed, but said that we did not sleep in the living room. I pointed out that our bedroom lay directly above and would feel the effects. She went upstairs and returned to say that the floor was cold to the touch. These old houses are very well-built! One hour of useful but boring grammar in bed. Pamela said she was too tired to respond to my utterances and that she had had enough Spanish for one day, thus this late journal entry to illustrate the support that I receive from my wife.

 

Miércoles, 28 de Noviembre

   I awoke with Pamela’s last words still lodged in my mind and, while weeding, had an ‘eureka’ moment. Classes! I would pay someone to talk and listen to me, and I told Pamela this as she was getting ready to go on her linguistic bakery outing.  She reminded me that I dislike spending money (not wholly true) and suggested that I find someone with whom to have exchange classes. In an exchange class, Pamela says, you listen to someone waffling on in English for half an hour and then inflict the same torture on them for half an hour in their language (i.e.: Spanish). She says it is best to get the English out of the way first, if possible. It turns out that she partook of these classes during her year in Paris; a year which she has told me very little about. She may have smoked ‘joints’ then too, for all I know.
   I typed out an advert on the computer in English – they will have to know some English – and pinned up a copy in both bars, the bakery, and a small windowless grocer’s shop that I have discovered. The body of the advert reads:

Englishman seeks Spanish speaker for ‘Exchange Classes’.
You will speak English for half a hour (30 minutes) and I will correct you.
I will then speak Spanish for half an hour and you will correct me.
I am patient and so must you be with me.
Venue to be convenient to both parties.
No monies to be exchanged.

    I think this outlines the purpose and the method of the classes to good effect. At the time of writing, no-one has yet responded.
   Studied one hour of grammar and did not trouble Pamela with any of my new sentences.

 

Jueves, 29 de Noviembre

   A sunny day after a cool night. I am sure our ten tog (spring/autumn) duvet will suffice for what remains of the winter. After weeding, I reconnoitred the house with my notepad, looking for things that can be improved and jotting down essential items to be purchased at the ‘Ferretería’. I concluded that I require: fire-lighters, matches, a toothbrush holder, spare bulbs, adhesive foam strips for windows and doors, two doorstops, an electric drill, screws and plastic plugs, a hammer, nails, pliers, sandpaper, wood varnish, white, black and green paint, brushes and turpentine. I may divide this into two lists, as I do so enjoy my ‘Ferretería’ trips.
   I saw the swarthy neighbour on his ‘plot’ again before lunch. He was smoking a normal cigarette and drinking a can of coke. Today he addressed me and said, “Tú conoces a Andy, no?” which I understood to mean; rightly, I later found, ‘You know Andy, don’t you?’ I quickly replied, “Sí,” and he said, “Buen tío, buen tío!” which I later found to mean, ‘Good uncle, good uncle’. How Andy has come to know that unsavoury specimen, to whom it appears he might even be related, I do not know. He did provide me with a short conversational exchange, though, and I will not reject his advances for the time being.
I had lunch alone, as Pamela had informed me that she was lunching with her new friend, and took coffee in the clean bar. I pointed to my advert and gave a ‘thumbs up’ sign to the fat young waitress.  
   She said, “En el pueblo nadie habla inglés,” and I understood her!
   (For the uninitiated: ‘In the village nobody speaks English.’)
   I replied, “No?” and she said, “No”.
   I then said, “Y tú?” and she said, “No, no, no, no!”
   I was happy to have taken part in a conversation, but disappointed that I may not find a suitable exchange student here in the village.
   Pamela was not impressed by my ‘Ferretería’ list, said we did not need the paint and the varnish,  and accused me of getting bored. I told her that ‘boredom’ was not in my vocabulary and went off to translate my ‘Ferretería’ list. It is not unusual for us to have these ‘cool’ periods and she always comes round eventually.

 

Viernes, 30 de Noviembre

   Pamela has come round. She tells me that her friend’s husband may well be interested in the exchange classes and that we are to have coffee with them at their home tomorrow. This is good news! I asked her if they were cultured people and she said, “Cultured enough.” I did not enquire further, as beggars cannot be choosers.
   Andy called round at midday with some eggs and would not accept payment. I would like to return his favours in some way, but imagine he is more accomplished at all the things that people do around here than I am. I could do his tax returns, but not in Spanish. I now regret not being more ‘handy’, and to having preferred golf to D.I.Y., but I shall soon take to it. Golf, needless to say, is now a thing of the past, being the one activity that would have me labelled ‘expat’! I mentioned that the swarthy neighbour had mentioned him, and he just said that he knew everybody in the village. I did not pursue the matter or comment on his vile habits. (The neighbour’s.)
   Coffee in the rustic bar. No tractor man. I alerted those present to my advert and received jovial negatives all round. I expected no less in that bar, but to provoke laughter was gratifying in itself and shows that they are beginning to accept me.
   I weeded in the failing light – 6pm – and failed to see any sign of the radishes. One hour of grammar; my first dabble with the subjunctive tense. I don’t think I am going to enjoy it and don’t see any need for it. English does very well without it, and is the world’s number one language, if you don’t count Chinese.

                                                                               A R Lowe ©2016

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Staying Put: One Man’s Fight to Remain in Spain – the first two chapters

 

 

ONE

 

   When just a sliver of blue sky remained between the sun and the sparsely wooded hills to the west Jack always downed trowel, book or coffee cup and sat down in his chair on the porch to watch the sunset. He must have seen thousands of them from that very porch, he reflected, and after an especially hot August day today’s sunset would be a welcome one.

   When the last tinges of red had left the sky the consequences of that morning’s calculations forced their way back into his mind. He closed his eyes and saw only dark clouds. Instead of his neat little house two miles from the village he saw a council flat in the worst part of Accrington, his native Lancashire town. His view of cultivated fields and distant cordilleras was replaced by that of a damp street and parked cars. His acre or so of land was reduced to a sodden, sun-starved window box. When he opened his eyes his thriving tomato plants came into focus. If his financial prospects were as bad as they seemed – and he knew that they were – a few summers from now he might be buying his fruit and veg at Asda.

   The thought of cycling into the village the next morning cheered him momentarily. It was Saturday, market day, and after a little banter with the stallholders he would repair to the bar for breakfast, a glass or two of wine, and more friendly chatter. He enjoyed his thrice-weekly trips to the village, but what he liked most of all was being in the country, working on his allotment, reading, thinking, enjoying the sun.

   He had thought towns, especially English towns, were a thing of the past for him, but on turning sixty the previous week he had forced himself to take stock of his situation. Having spent the last twenty-five years in Spain, his British pension would be a pitiful affair, and as he had worked only casually for the last few years he doubted that the Spanish state would be coughing up much either.

   Still, he thought, if he could manage now, he would manage even better when they threw him a few crumbs in five years’ time. This reminded him to call Brian, his friend and employer. He entered the square, three-bedroom bungalow, opened most of the windows to let in the cooling air, and returned to the porch with his mobile phone.

  “Brian, it’s Jack. What’ve you got for me next week?”

  “Not a lot, pal. We’ll finish tiling round that pool on Monday and after that I’m buggered if I know. Are you coming in tomorrow morning?”

  “Yes, I’ll cycle in at about nine.”

  “Let’s meet at Pam’s bar at half past.”

  “OK, see you then.”

   It was unusual of Brian to want to meet up at the weekend and in his current state of mind Jack couldn’t help feeling that something was amiss. Meeting at Pam’s bar too. Of the three bars in the village Brian knew that Jack frequented the English bar the least. It wasn’t that he had gone native exactly, but his Spanish was fluent and he hadn’t spent almost half his life here to listen to his countrymen chattering about pools, conservatories and how you couldn’t trust Spanish workers. Jack trusted some of his Spanish friends – Vicente and Salvador especially – with his life and he had only ended up working for Brian because they got on well, he paid well, and he only needed him two or three days a week. Vicente, a local copper who worked in not too distant Monóvar, had been right though – that his decision to work cash in hand would come back to haunt him one day.

   Perhaps Brian wanted to meet at Pam’s bar – home ground for him – because he had some bad news to impart. At sixty Jack was still as fit as a butcher’s dog, as they used to say back in Accrington, but if he said he didn’t feel his age he’d be lying. His knees had started to ache at times, although cycling everywhere seemed to alleviate them, and that curse of all builders – a bad back – seemed to be hitting him more frequently of late.

   Not that Jack was a builder by trade. He had come to Spain when he was thirty-five to teach English in the city of Murcia and escape from his dull office job for a while. He was recently divorced and, not having kids, he saw no reason not to prolong his belated ‘year out’ and after almost ten years in Murcia – the years that might produce a bit of a pension for him – he had invested some inheritance money in the house that had sheltered him so well for the last fifteen years; sheltered him physically and also from people, whom he found increasingly irksome unless he knew and liked them.

   He knew that the other British folk, and there were plenty of them around now, thought him something of an oddity – almost a hermit, in fact – but the villagers, though most of them wouldn’t want it for themselves, respected his preference for solitude. When he arrived among them at a sprightly forty-five they assumed his new car and year-long sabbatical from paid work meant that he was well off and he sensed that some subtle, and not so subtle, matchmaking was afoot.

   After a brief dalliance with Esme, the local chemist and a recent divorcee, had cooled and changed into a long-lasting friendship, the commencement of his labouring duties for the recently arrived Brian, a highly skilled builder and carpenter from Hexham, instantly made him much less of a catch. When he began to eschew his car in favour of an old mountain bike the mothers of unmarried or divorced daughters began to turn their attention to more promising suitors. Esme married a teacher from Jumilla and Jack became increasingly at ease with his bachelor status.

 

*      *      *

 

   The next morning he set off down the dusty track to the village at a quarter past nine, not wishing to reach Pam’s bar before Brian did. The sun was already high enough to make itself felt and he rode slowly up the last half mile of road past the wine cooperative, a row of ugly new houses, and the small but well-tended park and play area. The population of the village had recently topped three thousand for the first time since the 1950s, due mainly, but not wholly, to the influx of foreign residents.

   Jack guessed that there were around a hundred ‘rich’ foreigners living in, and especially around, the village, and each time a new couple or family arrived the local tradesmen rubbed their hands together – literally, for he had been with a couple of them when they had done it. The new arrivals’ penchant for restoring old properties and building pools, patios and boundary walls kept many people busy and had an important knock on effect. As well as Pam’s bar, which had been closed for many years until she bought, renovated and reopened it in 2010, a new restaurant had recently appeared, as well as a small supermarket and a hairdresser’s. Carmen’s tiny post office was no longer in danger of closing. Ramón’s hardware store had branched out into building supplies and Reme’s moribund tobacconist’s had expanded into adjacent premises to make room for newspapers, magazines, sweets and an unpredictable display of home-made cakes. These latter items annoyed Marco the baker no end until he produced a trump card from his off-white sleeve; an estate agency to be run by his clever, English-speaking daughter Marta.

   Even at half past nine on a Saturday Jack saw a couple of grey heads seated across from Marta as she beguiled them with glossy photos and her heavily accented sales patter. Jack nodded at Marta, tutted to himself, and leant his bike against the wall of Pam’s bar right next door. He popped his head through the bead curtains and, seeing no sign of Brian, decided to walk down the street to buy a paper. Yes, it was amazing what a hundred or so settlers could do for a place. Most of the people he knew thought it was, on the whole, a good thing. The newcomers spent money, were generally quiet, and the increasing vibrancy of the village made the youngsters less likely to leave.

  “Look at Juan Sempere’s son, Juanito,” Vicente had said to Jack one afternoon after dropping by on his way home from work. “He wouldn’t have found work here in a million years, the lazy devil, and there he is helping Ramón to sell bricks and cement to the guiris.”

    Guiri is a slightly disrespectful term for foreigners and it’s usage in the village had increased a hundredfold in the last decade.

  “Do they call me guiri?” Jack asked his friend.

  “Not that I know of, and I’d arrest anyone who did.”

  “This is not your patch.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” he said, smiling and patting his holster.

  “Have you even used that thing?”

  “Only on the firing range. I drew it once many years ago when a drunk pulled a knife on me outside a pub in Monóvar.”

  “Would you have shot him?”

  “Yes, in the foot. It would have been interesting, but the paperwork would have been endless.”

   Vicente was a slightly younger and darker version of himself, physically at least. Both men were about five ten, wiry and fit for their age. Both had blue eyes and a full head of greying hair, Jack’s a shade lighter, befitting his five years’ seniority. Temperamentally they were poles apart. Vicente loved being around people and had never been able to tempt Jack to go along to try out his main hobby, Latin dancing. Jack preferred to see people one-to-one and Vicente understood this. Sometimes they didn’t see each other for a while, but they were best friends in the sense that each sought out the other when they had a serious problem.

   Jack wished he were meeting Vicente now rather than Brian, but it was Brian who greeted him when he returned to Pam’s bar with a copy of El País under his arm.

  “Hello, Jack. What are you having?”

  “Just a coffee, please,” he said, looking from Brian to Pam.

  “Coming right up, stranger,” said the matronly lady from Shropshire. Jack liked her and used to call in more often, until the bead curtain had obscured the view inside from the street. Her tendency to introduce him to all her new customers had made his visits less frequent as small talk was not one of his strong points. As he carried his coffee to the table he reflected that if he were eventually forced to return to Accrington, he hoped that there would be someone as nice as her behind at least one of the café counters there.

  “You look thoughtful,” said Brian as Jack took the chair opposite him.

  “You look tired,” Jack said, noticing his friend’s puffy eyes.

  “Late night last night. We invited that new couple from Yorkshire round to dinner. He brought a bottle of whisky and wasn’t planning on leaving any.”

  “Wrong side of the Pennines, mate,” Jack said, purely out of habit. “Will they be putting any work your way?”

  “That’s what I’d hoped, of course, but it seems he’s a handy bloke, so they might not. I’m just going outside for a quick smoke.”

   Before you tell me the bad news, Jack thought, as Brian’s bulky form disappeared through the curtain. Brian was about fifty and had been one of the earliest English settlers in the village, just a year after himself. Back then he had been delighted to have someone from the same sort of background to speak English to and they had hit it off right away. Brian soon got a big restoration job and asked Jack to help him out. At first it was just mixing and carrying, but Brian had taught him a lot over the years and after his belated apprenticeship he now felt that he was a semi-skilled man at the very least. Shame that his back was no longer up to much.

  “Yes, I was counting on them having at least a few little jobs for us,” Brian said as he resumed his seat. He pushed his hand back over his bristly grey hair before tapping his thick fingers on the table and looking at his coffee.

  “If you’ve got some bad news, Brian, just spit it out. We are friends, after all.”

  “Right, well… the thing is, with the way things are I don’t think I’m going to need you much from now on, unless… until things pick up.”

  “I see,” Jack said, reassuring his friend with a smile.

  “After we finish that tiling on Monday I’ve only got a few small jobs lined up. With the expense of being self-employed here, I really need to do those jobs on my own, to make them last till something bigger comes up.”

  “I understand. Don’t worry, I can get along for a while without working. You know I don’t spend much. A big job will come along soon, one always does.”

  “I hope so,” said Brian, a shadow of what Jack thought might be guilt passing over his face. He coughed and sipped his coffee. “The trouble is that the local builders have started to get their acts together now, especially Martínez, who sent his lad away to Alicante to learn English. He’s back now and has been doing the rounds with some new cards they’ve had printed in English and Spanish.”

  “He’s a lousy builder,” said Jack.

  “Yes, lousy and cheap. The Brits that are coming out now don’t have as much money as they used to. They snap up a cheap house, but then haven’t much left to do it up with.”

  “Most of them won’t last. Especially the younger ones.”

  “No, but whether they last or not, they’re no use to us.”

  “Listen, Brian. You finish that tiling yourself. It might give you another day’s work. Don’t worry about me. I’m more concerned about my long-term prospects than a few euros here or there.”

  “How’s that?”

   Jack shared the results of the previous morning’s calculations with Brian.

  “Bloody hell, that doesn’t sound good. You want to get online and check up on how much you’ll have coming to you from your British pension.”

  “Online? You mean the computer? You know I don’t see eye to eye with those things.”

  “No, me neither, but Liz is well clued up now since we got internet at the house. I can ask her to look into it for you.”

  “Thanks, Brian, but I’ve a fair idea. I paid in for seventeen years back home. Now they want thirty years for a basic pension, but I’ve heard that they’re putting it up to thirty-five soon. Either way I’m going to get about half the basic pension.”

  “That’s not much. What about your years teaching in Murcia before you came here?”

  “Nine and a half years, ending fifteen years ago. I haven’t a clue if they’ll give me anything, but I’m not counting on it.”

  “And you’re sixty now?” Brian asked, because Jack had let his last few birthdays slip quietly by.

  “Yes, five to go.”

   The fact that it appeared that he would have to face those five years with little or no income hung like a cloud between the two men. Jack tried to lighten proceedings.

  “The damnable thing is that you don’t know how long you’re going to live. If I knew I was going to pop my clogs at, say, seventy-seven, I could make better calculations,” he said with a laugh.

  “You’re a fit bugger, though, and you don’t even drink much.”

  “No, perhaps I should hit the bottle and take up smoking again.” He laughed again in an attempt to ease his friend’s discomfiture.

  “Have you much saved, if you don’t mind me asking?”

  “I don’t and I have. I’ve still got a good few thousand in the bank, but, as I say, it’s the long term that I’m worried about. I can’t see myself back in England.”

  “No, of all of us here, you’re the most settled. I remember when we first met and you started speaking. You sounded like a Spaniard talking Lancashire.”

  “I remember. I hadn’t spoken much English for a while then.” Jack chuckled at the thought.

  “You still, don’t, apart from with me.”

  “Well, you know me. I don’t mind building swimming pools, but I don’t particularly like talking about them.”

  “My Spanish is still rubbish and I doubt it’ll get much better now. What do you talk about with Vicente, Salvador and the others?” Brian asked, more cheerful now that the subject of work had been dropped, and perhaps reassured because Jack had told him about his nest egg.

  “Oh, all sorts of things. Spanish blokes, or at least the ones I get on with, don’t tend to go on about… material things so much. We might start talking about politics, then move on to vegetables and finish up with, I don’t know, our childhood or something.”

  “Deep stuff, eh?”

  “Not really, just chatter.”

  “Well I get more than my fair share of materialist stuff when I talk to folk, but when people start a new life somewhere it’s what they’re bound to talk about.”

   Yes, Jack thought, but not go on and on about houses, pools, cars and savings for year after year as if there were nothing more to life. “I guess you need to put up with it to be in the know about any work that might come up,” he said, though he knew that Brian’s conversation rarely strayed far from mundane matters even when alone with him for hours on end. “I suppose I’ve never been much use at drumming up trade.”

  “You got us that job doing Salvador’s roof.”

  “A one-off. Anyway, I’ll be off to the market now. Don’t worry about me and just let me know when the next big job comes up. I’ll keep my eyes open too. The locals know you’re a good builder, you know.”

  “Yes, but I can’t beat Martínez and company on price. If you want Liz to look anything up for you on the computer just let me know, or pop round.”

  “Thanks, I will.”

   Brian began to push himself to his feet, furrowed his brow, and dropped back into his chair.

  “You know, if the worst comes to the worst you could sell the house and rent somewhere. The money would keep you for years and if you ever did need to go back home you might as well go back skint because they wouldn’t do anything for you until you were practically penniless.”

  “This is home to me now, Brian. This village and my house. I can’t see myself anywhere else. I’ll just have to put my thinking cap on. See you soon.”

 

   Jack walked down the street feeling oddly relieved that his days of working for Brian appeared to be over. Both men knew that Jack, or at least his back, wasn’t up to the really heavy work any longer, and large projects were precisely when the heavy work, such as lifting and placing concrete beams, was required. The fact that Brian’s son, Josh, had just finished school might be another decisive factor too, he reflected, as he couldn’t imagine what else the strapping but rather dim lad would do if not work for his dad.

   The only thing that really disturbed Jack about their meeting had been Brian’s final comment about selling the house. He knew Brian well and him standing up, having a brainwave, and sitting down again hadn’t fooled him for a minute. He knew that Brian had planned to offer up that suggestion at some point, but why? Time would tell, no doubt.

   Deciding to give the market a miss, he walked past the church into the square and entered Julio’s bar. The din of chatter didn’t lessen as he walked along the bar to his usual corner, but most of the dozen or so men who sat or stood at the bar greeted him briefly. He placed his folded paper on the counter and pulled up a stool.

  “Qué tal, Jack? What’s it going to be? asked Julio, the short, stout, often curmudgeonly owner who had taken over the running of the bar from his father some thirty years earlier. He refurbished the place every ten years and they said that each time he did it he became a little grumpier, just like his father had.

  “Buenos días, Julio. Toast with tomato and oil, and a coffee,” he replied, having learnt long ago that saying por favor and gracias to Julio annoyed rather than pleased him, probably because he rarely used the words himself.

   Julio popped the two halves of a baguette into the toaster and brought Jack his usual coffee, a cortado, strong with just a touch of milk. “What’s new, Jack?”

  “Nothing much. Just pottering on,” he said, fearing that anything he told Julio of his current dilemma might be around the village by lunchtime. He unfolded his paper and glanced at the usual headlines about political strife and corruption and wondered why he had bought it. The men nearest to him were talking about football, just for a change, even though the season hadn’t even started.

   The main reason Jack preferred the corner at the end of the bar was that he had his back to the television, which was on all day, every day. On his rare evening visits he would feign interest in the inevitable football match, but only out of politeness. He didn’t have a television at home, preferring the radio, music or, better still, silence, but he was long resigned to the fact that rare was the bar in Spain where the television wasn’t on. There was some kind of morning chat show on now, but no-one was paying the slightest attention to it. Jack was amused by how interminable the adverts had become and the fact that nobody seemed to mind. He sometimes wished he’d been born a hundred years earlier and, by some quirk of fate, ended up in the village. Television, cars and computers; they could keep them all.

   When Jaime, a young joiner who was making a go of it in the local area, dropped the subject of Real Madrid’s latest signing and began talking about work he pricked up his ears.

  “The new English couple who bought old Amador’s place out past the cemetery had me out there yesterday to give them a quote for some work,” he said to Federico, the plumber.

  “What state is the place in now?” Federico asked.

  “There’s work to do, but he seems to have got stuck into it himself. I saw a lot of plastic tubing on the porch, so there might not be anything for you there.”

  “And you?”

  “Oh, a couple of doors and some shelves, but he pulled a face when I told him how much,” said Jaime, tapping a cigarette out of his packet.

  “The last few new ones have all been a bit handy. Jack!” Federico called across the bar when Jaime had gone to the doorway to smoke. “What’s the story with the English out past the cemetery?”

  “I haven’t a clue, Fede. Are they from Yorkshire?” he asked, pronouncing the county as a Spaniard would.

  “God knows. I’m only assuming they’re ingleses, because they usually are. Have they called you and Brian yet?”

  “Not me, but I think they might have spoken to Brian. He’s the boss.”

  “Hmm, piles of tubing,” said Federico, thinking aloud. “He’ll botch it up and then call me in to fix it.” He took a cigarette packet from his shirt pocket and went to join Jaime at the door.

   Jack ate the toast that Julio had set down in front of him and thought what a chump he had been all these years. Of Brian and himself, who was the one who had access to the local grapevine? He was. Who saw the other builders and tradesmen week in and week out? He did. Brian had said that his Spanish was rubbish, but it wasn’t that, it was non-existent. After fourteen years he couldn’t string a sentence together and probably knew a couple of hundred words. True, Brian was round like a shot when new Brits moved in, but he was the one who could have sussed out the state of their properties before the removal van reached the door.

   Indolence, that’s what it was. With his two hundred or so euros coming in every week he hadn’t given a thought to the future, and now look where he was? Facing the prospect of selling his house and counting down the years until he would have to return to England, cap in hand. Or would his money last him out till he died? His parents had both passed away in their early seventies, but people lived longer these days, especially healthy ones.

  “Julio, a glass of wine, por favor.”

  “Sí, señor,” he replied in mock deference, fishing a bottle of white from the fridge. “You look thoughtful there, Jack.”

  “Oh, just wondering what to have for lunch.”

  “Of course.” Julio took off his glasses and polished them with a napkin. “I saw Brian at Ramón’s the other day, loading up with sand and cement.”

  “Ah.”

  “His son was with him.”

  “Right.”

  “Brian was showing him how to get a bag of cement onto his shoulder.”

  “Well, he’ll need to know how to do that,” said Jack, smiling.

  “What’ll you have for lunch then?”

  “What? Oh, fish, I think.”

  “Talk to Martínez.”

  “What about? Fish?”

  “Ha, no. You know what about.”

  “Hmm.”

   When two men of few words get together, their conversations tend to go like that, Jack thought, but a lot could be said in a few words. Julio was reputed to have a heart of gold, albeit a well-concealed one, and if any man knew the state of play in the local labour market it was him. Still, approaching Martínez, Brian’s up-and-coming rival, seemed like treachery. On the other hand, Brian setting his son to work without warning him wasn’t exactly cricket either.

   Perhaps I should wait until Brian gets his next big project, Jack thought. If he doesn’t call me then, I’ll know it’s over. A shame, but inevitable. Family first, after all. Brian’s a good bloke and it’s probably embarrassment more than anything else that’s kept him from speaking up. Still, it was strange of him to suggest me selling the house. Sounded like someone else speaking through him. His wife, Liz? She’s a funny one. I’ve never been able to work her out. Wait and see, that’s what I’ll have to do.

  “Martínez usually comes in after lunch on Saturdays,” said Julio, interrupting his reverie.

  “Hmm, perhaps I’ll have meat today, after all.”

  “Suit yourself.”

  “Thanks anyway. What do I owe you?”

  “Oh, three.”

   Jack paid and was taking his leave of the other men at the bar when Julio ushered him back.

  “I’d have fish today, if I were you, Jack.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “It’s good brain food.”

 

TWO

 

  “I told her to tell him to tell him,” said Denise as she lugged herself up the pool steps, water cascading from her voluminous body.

  “What’s that, dear?” asked her husband Les from the sunbed.

  “Jack, you know. I told Liz to tell Brian to put the idea of selling his house into his head like you told me to.” She towelled herself briefly before easing herself onto the sunbed next to her husband’s.

  “Do you think she did?”

  “I’m sure she told Brian, but whether he had the guts to mention selling the house, I don’t know. I mean, the last I heard he hadn’t even told the old duffer that he wouldn’t be needing him much longer now that Josh’ll be starting to work with him.”

  “I don’t think Jack’s much older than us, dear.”

  “He seems older, being so serious, and he’s got no friends; apart from Brian, I suppose.”

  “He knocks about a lot with the Spanish.”

  “They don’t count, and what does he do with himself stuck out in the country all the time?”

  “Enjoy the view. That’s why I want to buy his house,” said Les, picking up an old copy of The Sun and putting it down again.

  “What wrong with this one? She pointed vaguely in the direction of the smart five bedroom bungalow to their left.

  “Poor view. No future. You know I want to start thinking about investing. We’ll buy him out and either put another storey on the house – Brian says it’s well built – or knock it down and build a new one. It’s got the best view of any place I’ve seen round here and Néstor says that the land in the valley will come up for sale soon, once the old chap who owns it pops his clogs.”

  “Néstor? That young lawyer who you brought here once? He looks like a crook.”

  “That’s why I like him,” said Les with a chuckle. “He’s doing well for himself down in Alicante, but he always keeps an eye on things round here. If we’re not careful, he’ll snap up Jack’s house and then where will we be?”

  “Here, in this lovely house with a heated pool.”

  “There’s no future here, dear. It’s done us for two years and it’ll do for a couple more, but I want that view. I want to sit there and watch the houses I build in the valley make money for us.”

  “I thought we’d come here to retire, Les. When you sold the haulage firm you said we were set up for life.”

  “And we are, but I can’t just sit here day after day,” he said, patting his paunch. “I’ve got to stay active.”

  “Take up jogging or something then.”

  “Ha, that’s a good one. Be a dear and fetch me a beer.”

  “In a minute, I’m just thinking. What do you mean about building houses? I thought the housing market was shot to bits.”

  “What goes down comes up, dear, but whatever I decide to do I want Jack’s house.”

  “How do you know he’s skint anyway?”

  “Stands to reason. Old car sat there gathering dust. The clothes he wears. Cycling round everywhere. Still a few years to retirement, I’d say, and no more work. He’ll have to go back home, like all the other failures.”

  “Brian might still find some work for him.”

  “No, he won’t.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Because I’m… we’re, going to buy that little old house that I showed you at the edge of the village and I’m going to get Brian to do it up, on one condition.” Les closed his eyes. He loved to tantalise his wife and anybody else who would listen to him.

  “What condition?”

  “That he doesn’t use Jack. By the time he’s finished the work his lad will have got into the swing of things and there’ll be no looking back.”

  “You’re a devil, you are, Les.”

  “I didn’t build up a fleet of seventy lorries by being Mr Nice, did I?”

  “Still, it doesn’t seem right.”

  “All’s fair in love and business. How about that beer?”

  Denise swung her hefty legs off the sunbed and pushed herself to her feet. “I suppose I could invite Liz and Brian to lunch on Saturday.”

  “That’s my girl.”

 

*      *      *

 

   Three miles to the south, on the other side of the village, Jack sat in possession of the view that the wily Brummie, Les, coveted so, but the fact that it was his fourth consecutive day without working was playing on his mind. Not that he’d been idle. There was hardly a weed on his land and all his neat rows of tomatoes, lettuces, peppers, melons and watermelons were well watered. He had picked a box of plums which he’d give to Salvador when he came round later for lunch. He had even washed his fifteen year old Seat Ibiza and driven it down to the road and back to keep the battery charged. The house was spotless and he had swept and mopped the covered porch before making himself a cup of tea and taking it out to the table in the shade.

   He looked down the valley at the fields planted mostly with olive and almond trees. He saw old Pedro on his tractor, ploughing as usual, and waved. The old man was too far away to see him and Jack marvelled at his tenacity. He must be pushing eighty now, he thought, and struggles to walk from his car to the bar, but he never misses a day’s ploughing, not even on Sundays. Mind you, he’s got enough fields to keep him busy, but what’ll happen when he goes? His eldest, Pedro too, is the only one still farming. The other three have all left the village and rarely visit. Perhaps young Pedro will buy them out, but he’s pushing sixty and spends more time in the bar in a week than his father does in a year.

  “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” he said aloud, causing the stray cat that was sunning itself on the low porch wall to prick up its ears. “I’ll get you a bit of something in a minute,” he told the black tomcat. He wasn’t especially fond of cats and fed them titbits only occasionally as he didn’t want them to take over the place. He thought about getting another dog. Toby, a springer spaniel that he’d acquired in his first year in the house, had died just over a year ago and it was high time he started thinking about getting a new puppy. A dog was company – mostly silent company – and gave you a reason to go for good long walks. He’d ask around.

   He went inside and started preparing the paella. As it was only for two he used his smaller paella pan on the biggest gas ring. While the chicken was sizzling in the olive oil he bought from the local cooperative he chopped up the onion, peppers and tomatoes. After taking out the browned chicken pieces he popped the vegetables in, followed by a couple of sliced garlic cloves, before sprinkling on some paprika, mixed herbs and saffron powder. After a few minutes he put the chicken back in and added water from the kettle that had just boiled. Once he had stirred it all thoroughly he left it to simmer for ten minutes before taking out the chicken, pouring in the rice, and giving it one quick stir. Ten minutes later he put the chicken back in, gave the pan a shake, and went outside while the rice slowly cooked, confident that the amount of water was just right. His paellas were nothing fancy, but after much trial and error over the years they always came out pretty well. Making a bigger one required a little more attention to detail, but it had been a while since he had used the larger pan and the special paella burner.

   Three was a big lunch party for Jack nowadays and occurred only when Salvador and Vicente both came. In the early days he’d had more people round, but the aimless chitchat that had ensued had bored him and he soon ceased to conform to that and other social norms, such as taking part in the village fiestas.

   Every May for as long as anyone could remember the village had celebrated a three-day-long Moors and Christians fiesta and in his second year of residence he had been badgered into taking part. He had been drafted into the Moors’ comparsa and remembered vividly the evening of the grand procession when they had blacked their faces and donned fancy costumes that they hired from a place in Elda. They had marched along in three rows, very slowly and bobbing from side to side, to the beat of the village band, and the route from the edge of the village to the church had seemed to take forever.

  “Did you not feel it, Jack?” one member of his comparsa had asked him later at the dance in the square.

  “Feel what, Luis?”

  “The passion, the feeling that you were in their shoes as they marched all over Spain a thousand years ago.”

  “Well, yes, a bit,” he had said, untruthfully. He doubted that the Arab invaders marched with brass bands and was amused by the fact that Luis, who worked in the country, hated the Moroccans who came to pick the olives every autumn, claiming that they pushed wages down. “We should get some of the Moors who come to work here to take part,” he had added.

  “Pah, they’re not the real thing, the sneaky bastards. In any case, they don’t drink, so they wouldn’t enjoy it.”

   The following year Jack had timed his trip to England to visit his ailing mother to coincide with the fiestas and hadn’t been asked to take part since. These reminiscences brought his mind back to his current situation. Perhaps if he had taken part in the fiestas all these years more work would have come his way. Not unless he had hustled for it, and that wasn’t his way. No, he had put all his eggs in Brian’s basket, so to speak, and he was too old to start asking round now. Why then Julio’s insistence that he speak to Martínez? Perhaps there was something in it, but he baulked at the idea of approaching that brash man who was young enough to be his son.

   Shortly after he had turned off the gas and covered the paella with a sheet of newspaper he heard Salvador’s car coming up the track. As the well-used diesel saloon came to a halt on the gravelled area in front of the house he walked down the three porch steps to greet his friend. Salvador took off his tie and draped it over the passenger seat before closing the door and walking jauntily towards the house. He was a short, rotund man of forty-five who despite not having much time or inclination to exercise seemed to have boundless energy.

  “Hola, Salva, you’re just in time.” The two men shook hands and half embraced.

  “Qué tal, Jack? I’m starving. I’ve just driven back from Denia and what a waste of time that was.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Oh, they’ve got me working on a housing development there that’s never going to happen.”

  “But they’ll pay you, won’t they?”

  “Oh, yes. That’s the good thing about working for town councils. They almost always pay, eventually.”

   Salvador was a lawyer who worked all over the Valencian region, mainly on housing-related matters and usually for PSOE-led town councils. During the ten years he had served as a village councillor for the Spanish Socialist Party he had made a lot of useful contacts and until the property crash of 2008 had been going from strength to strength. Since then he had employed his considerable ingenuity to keep ticking over until things picked up.

  “Are things picking up yet, Salva?” Jack asked him as they entered the house.

  “Hmm…” He pulled a comic face and moved his head from side to side. “They’re not getting any worse.”

   Salvador refused to let things get him down and his sense of humour had helped him battle through several tough years. He drove tens of thousands of kilometres a year, to towns as far afield as Morella in Castellón, in an effort to keep his and his wife and two young children’s bodies and souls together. Jack thought Salvador’s wife, Chelo, rather silly and didn’t see much of her or the children. Salvador was shockingly honest about his marriage.

  “There I was, an ugly little chap of thirty-three, and along came a pretty young thing ten years younger than me who saw the brilliant man behind this homely face,” he had once said during his second post-dinner whisky. “She’s not the brightest spark in the world, I know, and I won’t deny that my earning potential might have been a major factor in her choice, but she keeps me off this stuff,” he had said, lifting his glass. “She’s given me two fine children too, with their father’s brains and their mother’s looks, so who am I to complain?”

   Salvador had been similarly blunt when he saw how difficult Jack found it to converse with her. “No more of these little family get-togethers for us Jack,” he had said after a particularly trying afternoon at his house in the village. “Family’s family and friends are friends and I’ll spare you the ordeal from now on.”

  “No, no, it’s been fine,” Jack had protested.

  “Don’t worry, she doesn’t think much of you either. She wonders why you don’t work more, and talk more. It’ll be tête-à-tête for us from now on, unless the dancing policeman joins us.”

   Although both were from the village, Salvador and Vicente, due to their ten year age difference, hadn’t really known each other until they met through Jack. Since then they had become firm friends and Salvador, unlike Jack, had been to a couple of Latin dancing sessions with Vicente in Monóvar, until Chelo had put a stop to that.

  “Is that old lawman Vicente coming today?” asked Salvador while Jack uncorked a bottle of red wine.

  “No, I called him but he’s on the late shift.”

   Jack removed the newspaper and they both ate from the paella pan, leaving their chicken bones and olive stones on the same plate.

  “What are you working on at the moment?” Salvador asked.

  “Nothing.”

  “Nothing? Has Brian not got much on?”

  “I don’t really know, but he hasn’t got anything for me. I think our partnership might be over now that his lad’s old enough to work.”

   Salvador put down his fork and looked at Jack. “That’s bad. Did he give you any warning?”

  “No, probably too embarrassed.”

  “Funny folk the English. What will you do?”

  “Let’s eat, then I’ll tell you my predicament.”

   After Jack had cleared and wiped the table they decided to have coffee in the shade of the porch. Jack took out the tray while Salvador trotted over to his car and returned with a bottle of brandy.

  “Gran Duque de Alba,” said Jack, reading the label. “This is a good one.”

  “Given to me by a councillor in Játiva, to make up for how little they’re paying me, I think,” he said with a snort of laughter.

  “It’s too good to go in the coffee. I’ll get some glasses.”

  When he returned Salvador had taken his shirt off and was enjoying the coolest temperature since May. “Summer will soon be over, thank God. Now, Jack, drink a glass of this stuff and tell me what’s on your mind.”

   Jack filled Salvador in on the state of his finances and pension prospects as accurately as he could. When he had finished Salvador nodded thoughtfully and sipped his coffee.

  “It’s bad, but it’s not so bad,” he said.

  “No?”

  “Just think about all the people in the Third World and how they live.”

  “Yes, well, I’m not comparing myself to those poor folk, but I don’t want to end up back in England.”

  “England’s not so bad. I spent a weekend in London once.”

  “Accrington’s not London, Salva, though I wouldn’t fancy that place much either.”

  “No, I guess it wouldn’t suit you. Anyway, as I say, things don’t look so bad to me. You have to look at your resources.”

  “Well, I’ve told you what I have.”

  “I don’t just mean money, I mean your resources.”

  “Meaning?”

  “Meaning what you’re capable of doing. You weren’t always a builder’s labourer, were you?”

  “Well, no. I used to work in an office, and then the teaching in Murcia.”

  “Right, well, I suppose things have changed a lot in offices these days, what with computers and all.”

  “Yes, we used them back then, but not the internet.”

  “What about teaching?”

  “Teaching English? Well, I guess I still remember how to do that. In Murcia I used to teach groups of ten or twelve, from young kids up to adults.”

  “Why have you never done that here, Jack?”

  “To tell you the truth I was pretty fed up of it towards the end; that and city life. That’s why I left and moved up here. I’d realised that I didn’t like to be around so many people. I took it easy for a year, though I did a lot of work on the land here, and then I started working for Brian.”

   Salvador took his cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit one. “There’s nothing to stop you looking for English classes here; you know, kids who are struggling at school, or adults who fancy having a go. With Spain being in such a bad way English is a passport out of here for some people.”

  “I’d feel daft teaching kids at my age, though I guess I could cope with adults, one-to-one.”

  “There you are then. That’s one possible source of income, but I think you could do a lot more.”

  “Such as?”

  “Well, people like you here. They like and respect you and consider you almost one of themselves. They don’t really think of you as a foreigner. That’s one side of it. How do you get on with the British?”

  “I don’t really mix with them too much. I’ll always stop for a chat if I see people in the village, but they probably think I’m a bit standoffish. I never see them socially, not even at Christmas and New Year when they tend to get together, some of them.”

  “Right, so you’re not first on their party lists, but do they trust you?” Salvador asked, refilling their brandy glasses.

  “Oh, I think so. Yes, I’d say they trust me.”

  “Trust, yes,” Salvador said, sipping his brandy and appearing to examine the wooden beams above his head. He looked at Jack. “I’ll tell you something about myself now.”

  “Go on.”

  “But I’m not… showing off. When I was a village councillor people soon saw that I didn’t take bribes. When I got to know a lot of people at PSOE conferences in Alicante and Valencia I started making contacts for my work. They probably thought, ‘Here’s another pushy young lawyer on the make,’ but when anyone showed any real interest I said to them, ‘Look, first of all check me out. Speak to the other councillors in the village – the PP and IU ones too, not just my colleagues – and you’ll see that I’m a man you can trust.’ Mind you, they didn’t all like that,” he said, laughing.

  “Why not?” asked Jack, wondering where all this was going.

  “Because some people on some councils want a crooked lawyer. Anyway, the point I’m making is that trust can get you a long way. If it hadn’t been for the property crash I’d be a wealthy man by now. As it is I’ve pulled through the worst of it while a lot of other lawyers have had to practically give it up. Enough about me. Let’s talk about you now.”

  “What about me?” Jack pushed his empty brandy glass out of Salvador’s reach.

  “The people here trust you. The foreigners trust you. You know about building and quite a bit about houses in general. Think about it.”

  “I’m thinking and I think I know what you’re going to suggest. Trust is one thing, but… communication is another. I’m a quiet man, Salva, and I haven’t got much push. I can still work all day long, but get me in a group of people and I can’t leave quickly enough.”

  “You’re a quiet man, so you go about your business quietly. You quietly speak to everyone in the village, directly or indirectly, and quietly tell them that if they have any property to sell that they speak to you first. Then, when just about everybody is aware of your new role, you speak quietly to the foreigners who you come across and tell them that you’re dealing with practically every property that’s for sale in and around the village, so if they know anybody who wants to buy they should come to you first if they want to avoid paying a whacking great commission on top of the house price. You’ll have to advertise too, of course, but we’ll come to that later.”

   Jack reached for the bottle and poured himself another slug of brandy. He knew Salvador’s fast and furious way of talking well, but had never had to assimilate anything quite like this before.

  “Me selling houses? I just can’t see it. I mean, what about all the paperwork and legal stuff? I haven’t a clue.”

  “Can’t you think of anyone you know who could deal with that side of things?”

  “Only you, but you’re too busy to bother with that.”

  “Ha! I wish I was. I’d love to get some work closer to home and I could probably undercut whoever people use now.”

  “Isn’t there a lawyer called Néstor from the village? I hear talk of him sometimes.”

  “Bad things, probably. He’s based mainly in Alicante now, but he may have some dealings with Martínez the so-called builder.”

  “I’d been meaning to ask you about Martínez. You know, Julio at the bar was insinuating that I should have a word with him. He knows that Brian’s son has started work now, you see.”

  “Hmm, Martínez has quite a bit of work on just now, and he’ll get more. My guess is that he wants you on board so he can use you to get in with the English.”

  “Do you think so?”

  “Why else? He can get workers half your age if he needs more men. Don’t go near him. He’s a shoddy worker, by all accounts, and if he’s hand in glove with Néstor, as I assume he is because they’re made for each other, it’ll make things easier for us.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Remember what we were saying about trust? No-one here trusts that pair, especially Néstor. You just need to point out, subtly, to the foreigners that neither of them is trustworthy. I can give you some gossip about both of them that you can slip into the conversation.” He lit another cigarette and blew the smoke to one side.

   Jack stirred his neglected coffee and took a sip. “I’ll have to think about all this, Salva. It’s not something I’d have ever thought of doing. The English classes might be a better bet.”

  “There’s nothing to stop you doing that too. The thing is to make a start on the house selling idea. Just put the word out in the village that people ought to tell you if they have anything to sell.” Salvador sipped his brandy and flicked ash over the side of the porch. “You could charge them a flat fee of, say, a thousand euros, at first.”

  “Marta won’t be pleased when she hears about it, or her dad, Marco.”

  “Too bad. He’s another rogue and should stick to baking bread.”

  “Won’t they accuse me of working illegally?”

  “Probably, but you won’t be working, will you? You’ll just be bringing interested parties together. When you start approaching possible buyers, you tell them a couple of stories about Néstor, like the scandal in San Vicent del Raspeig that he was involved in. I’ve got a newspaper clipping at home somewhere. Then tell them you know a trustworthy lawyer who knows everything there is to know about housing matters.” Salvador pointed to himself and pulled a face of mock surprise.

  “I’ll need to think about it. I don’t like treading on people’s toes.”

  “Where is it you’re from in England?”

  “Accrington, in Lancashire, in the north.”

  “What’s it like?”

  “It’s… well, I haven’t been back for a few years, but it’s… I guess you’d call it post-industrial.” He thought about the beer-drinking loiterers who had been much in evidence on his last trip home to see his sister, but also about the good folk who lived there. “It’s not a bad town really.”

  “And the weather?”

   Jack looked down at his brown hands. “Now it might be all right, but most of the year it’s terrible.”

  “When you have doubts, think of Accrington.”

 

http://goo.gl/SWYPvu

The Lady Writer – a very short story.

   The lady writer took a trip on the tube for no reason other than that a colleague had said it might do her good.

  “See some people, listen to them, see some stuff, make some notes.”

   Who was the imposter who suggested finding what you like to do best and making a living out of it?

   She used to love writing when she was a kid; a right little Bronte sister she was, with her notebooks full of plays and poems. Studied English, got a job as a teacher, liked it, and then packed it in to be a ‘writer’. All on the strength of a damned short story competition. The judges must’ve liked cats, that’s all. After the Cat Period, came the Food Period, followed by the House Makeover Period and the Handbag and Accessory Period. Just like Picasso; getting worse all the time (as she’d said in her brief, very brief, Art Period).

   She was tired of writing rubbish. At first she had naively thought that she would blaze a parallel trail as a novelist, but what with racking her brains for material for articles about such tripe as post-holiday blues, positive stress, and solar powered dishwashers, she couldn’t slam her laptop shut fast enough. Articles designed for minds with an attention span of sixty seconds and the cultural aspirations of a hedgehog. Now the thirty-odd weeks a year in the classroom and the salary in the bank every month seemed like a rosy dream. Hey, would any teacher in their right mind go and do more classes in the evening? Exactly.

   Why the tube? she wondered. Not a lot to see out of the windows. Practically everyone in here is reading a tabloid or a women’s magazine, apart from the quasi-illiterates prodding away at their phones. Some snippets of poetry framed up on the walls – that’s nice. What she needed was an idea. Yes, she could write a novel as good as the next man or woman, but what about? Most of the new stuff was the sort of thing she would write right now; a sophisticated, literary chunk of nothingness. Or she could go historical – there was money in that – but there’s the research, and time is money, or no money in her case.

   The train stopped and a nun got on. You don’t see many nuns on the tube these days and this nun looked at the poem on the wall, read it, and smiled a serene, nunny smile. Maybe there was the seed of a story there? If she could just start writing a story maybe she would get back into it.

   Well she wrote that story about the nun; a trite little piece that she knew was worthless, and she won another respectable short story competition. Now she knew what she had to do.

   Six months later she was teaching again and hadn’t written an unnecessary word for six months. She would write again when she had something to write. She was grateful to her friend and for the ride on the tube, and put the last five wasted years down to experience.

Beating the System – A Very Short Story

  “You need to self-motivate yourself.”

  “To motivate myself?”

  “No, to self-motivate yourself.”

  “What’s the difference?”

  “It’s what we say nowadays. Apply for at least six jobs before you next sign on.”

  “Oh, I will.”

  Bernie was beating the system and enjoying every minute of it. He owned his house, got his council tax paid, and considered the seventy-odd pounds dole he received every week mere beer money. In fact, he made a point of putting this money aside and spending every penny of it on beer. He said ‘Cheers!’ after taking the first sip of every single pint he ordered in the pub, which his co-drinkers thought excessively ceremonious, but then he wasn’t really addressing them.

   And they didn’t know, not even his pals. Bernie was careful, you see. A plasterer by trade, he never worked within twenty miles of Burnton and showered and cleaned his nails scrupulously every day after work. On signing days he had a lie in until nine and spent half an hour at the computer finding jobs to put in his little booklet, spacing out the dates over the previous fortnight. He always went to the pub after signing on. He said, only to himself, that it was his personal Bank Holiday and he rested from his gruelling work schedule in Manchester or Leeds or wherever his boss sent him.

   He didn’t like keeping much ready cash in the house and so indulged heartily in his hobby of coin collecting. He collected sovereigns, Maple Leaf dollars, Krugerrands and other gold coins of unquestionable authenticity. It must be said that he didn’t peruse his collection much, but he could hardly be expected to roll back the carpet and pull up the floorboards every time he fancied a peek inside the bags and boxes. He found that the very presence of the coins in the house gave him all the numismatic pleasure he required.

   His collection had been growing steadily for eight years and he felt sure that in seven more years he would tire of it and turn it over, little by little, to more discerning collectors. Seven more years, if his gold price graph proceeded in the manner he anticipated; it was funny how all this unemployment and instability made it rise. He made a point of checking the price on his mobile phone while he sat waiting to sign on, even if he already knew it. It made him feel warm inside.

   He had an inkling that his next hobby would be travel. Yes, he would let his house, buy a motor-home, and spend a few years on the costas. A dozen years in southern climes should take him up to retirement age and, who knew what might happen during that time? He might meet a woman of means to share his life with, or he might not. Either way, he would keep paying his stamp and, if all else failed, he would return home to draw his pension. The worst case scenario wasn’t all that bad, he thought, and he should still have a few monarchs’ heads around to brighten things up.

   What Bernie hadn’t noticed was the Ford Mondeo parked near to the Bradford building site where he was then working. A bespectacled man had been sitting there every morning and afternoon for several days, tapping car registration numbers into his laptop. It was boring work but had its satisfying moments, and his days in court always made a nice change.

One Man War – A Very Short Story

   If you walk into the office of Harker Brothers’ Plumbing Supplies you may choose to glance at the six people seated at their desks. Brent Pullman would not strike you as out of the ordinary in any way. Indeed, you could spend a day in the office, in the country, or in your home with Brent and you would find him to be an agreeable, interesting man.

   His colleagues, however, thought him odd. Brent was the office manager and earned a good salary but did not follow the established behavioural patterns of a man of his position. He didn’t own a car and he brought his lunch to work. He lived in a small flat in which no bank was a shareholder and he bought his clothes cheaply. He neither drank nor smoked and spent his holidays with friends and relations. He didn’t own a television set and appeared to spend an unhealthy amount of time reading, listening to music and walking in the hills. Yes, Brent, his colleagues thought, was decidedly odd, and what on earth did he do with all that money that he didn’t know how to spend?

   One day a colleague left and a fresh one arrived. An inquisitive young soul, his non-conformism radar soon began to blip as it passed over Brent’s desk space and, on making inquiries, he was gladly informed of his manager’s idiosyncrasies. Unsubtle youth that he was, on finding himself alone with Brent one Friday afternoon he inquired into his habits, pastimes, and aspirations as no other co-worker had done these last twenty-four years. They had had to discover the shocking truth about Brent little by little.

   Brent smiled at the boy and exhaled slowly. (He practised meditation too, but very few people knew that.)

  “Derek, what I am about to tell you now I haven’t told a soul before. There is a reason – a very good reason – for my choice of lifestyle, which my colleagues have no doubt informed you of. I, Brent Pullman, am waging a one man war on capitalism. By not consuming more than the bare minimum required to keep body and soul together, I am doing my bit towards bringing the system to its knees. If everyone did as I do, the capitalist hierarchy would crumble within weeks and a new finer society would emerge. That, Derek, is why I do what I do, and live the way I live.”

  “OK, Mr Pullman, see you Monday.”

   Derek shook his head as he headed towards his car, on which he only had thirty-one instalments left to pay, and turned his thoughts to the night of drink-fuelled merriment that lay ahead.

   On being left alone in the office Brent took off his tie, put his feet up on his desk, and laughed aloud. He marvelled at the coincidence of this youth breaking the office taboo of inquiring directly into one’s personal life on this particular day. What he had said to Derek wasn’t entirely true. Brent had so far enjoyed a healthy life and had acquired a great deal of knowledge. He had also saved a large amount of money and wouldn’t in fact be seeing Derek on Monday or on any other day.

   He would be in Costa Rica on Monday and would live there until he decided to move on. He was formed and free, healthy and wise, and didn’t think himself odd at all.

Sam – A Very Short Story

   Mrs Greene was happy but for one thing.

   Mr Greene had an excellent job, the children had left home, and she had a healthy, varied social life. No post-menopause blues or holes in her life for Mrs Greene. If it weren’t for her neighbour, Mrs Browne, life would be perfect.

   Mrs Browne, despite the extra ‘e’ which they shared and which Mrs Browne  wrongly thought gave them something in common, had a habit of dropping in whenever she wished and overstaying her wafer-thin welcome. She would gossip and criticize and rarely had anything positive to say, and Mrs Greene, a cheerful, benign optimist, was far too polite to shun her unwelcome neighbour.

   One day, Mrs Browne called round before lunch while Mrs Greene was sewing and half watching one of those programmes about people selling off family heirlooms and pretending not to need the money. You know, where someone really wants somebody else to enjoy a Chinese vase that has been in their family for five generations. Mrs Greene´s cocker spaniel, Sam, had an odd impulse to howl on hearing the title music to this programme. It was the only music of any kind that produced this effect on the docile beast and it amused Mrs Greene and made her wonder if the depressing undercurrent of the show caused this primal lamentation.

   The howling, however, seemed to greatly agitate Mrs Browne and she finished her tea hurriedly and excused herself. Mrs Greene mused on this reaction to Sam´s reaction and told her husband about it when he returned home that evening.

  “Just that programme?” he asked.

  “Yes, just that one. Pity that´s not one of Mrs Greene´s usual visiting times.”

  “Hmm.” 

   After dinner Mr Greene, a splendid man of few words, went off to his shed in the garden and reappeared with an old cassette recorder.

  “Record the music on that programme tomorrow, dear.”

   The next evening Mr Greene arrived home with another cassette machine and a cable, and after dinner took the two machines to his shed. Some time later he re-emerged and placed one tape recorder on the kitchen floor. He pressed the play button, turned the sound down, and called Sam. He slowly raised the volume and the dog began to howl.

“But I can´t hear anything!” said Mrs Greene from the sitting room.

“No dear, but Sam can, and the music goes on and on. Now let´s find a good place to put this.”

   Mrs Browne was much perturbed. Every time she called on her neighbour that stupid dog howled, either right away or after a short time. The howling was unbearable to her and Mrs Greene apologised and took Sam into the garden, pressing a button through a plastic bag next to the geraniums before she re-closed the kitchen door. The fainter howling still penetrated to some deep, dark place in Mrs Browne´s soul and her visits became brief and infrequent.

   Mrs Greene´s happiness was complete. She loved her husband more than ever, she had felt for the first time since her childhood the peculiar pleasure of naughtiness, and Sam was still only three years old.

Barry Braithwaite’s Last Life – The First two Chapters

1

   Barry was living in a skip, and was proud of it. A disused skip to be sure, long abandoned to the elements, and too corroded to be of any practical use; but I must clarify something here. Barry was proud of the skip, not especially of the fact that he lived in it. I’m Barry’s friend and mentor and I want to tell you about him. Not just what he does, but what he thinks, or what I believe he thinks, which may not be the same thing. I want this to be a kind of socio-historical document which someone may read in a hundred years’ time; a bit like we read, or don’t read, Dickens now.

   What I’ve said so far might tell you something about me and I suppose you have a right to know who I am. I’m your typical over-read, middle-aged, under-achiever, whose habitat tends to be a taxpayer sponsored flat on the edge of an industrial town. I almost drank myself to death through prolonged ennui and frustration – no-one ever understood me – and have come out at the other end with my thoroughly undeserved pension credits and a penchant for Victorian literature, schoolboy Latin, and a spot of do-gooding to ease my frayed conscience. That’s me in a nutshell, but I’ll tell you about myself some other time.

   I first saw Barry when he walked into the church hall where I’d started making cups of tea and dishing out economy meals one or two mornings a week. Our patrons aren’t especially well dressed or groomed, but Barry did stand out from the crowd. He surveyed the room through squinting, begrimed eyes, and shuffled to one of the cushioned plastic benches around the walls. There he assumed a foetal position and was soon asleep. I was told that that was Barry, and a sleeping Barry was as good a Barry as any.

   He awoke as the last plate was dried, sat up, and surveyed the room. I observed him over my tea towel and was struck by the mass of dark hair over his creased red face. He looked fifty-five but was clearly ten years younger, if you know what I mean. As I was watching him, he stood up and lurched towards the counter. His clothes had surpassed the normal stages of dirtiness and appeared to be in the early stages of decomposition. He leaned on the counter and gazed at me with eyes which reminded me of a refracted Union Jack, but with most of the blue in the middle.

  “Who’re you?”

  “I’m Alfred.”(Never Alf.)

  “Can you lend me a pound?”

  “No, but I can make you a cup of tea.”

  “All right. Any food left?”

  “Oh, I expect we can rustle something up. You are Barry, I believe?”

  “Electrician.”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “I’m an electrician. Wasn’t always like this.”

  “Right. Here’s the tea.”

 “Ta.” He shuffled back to the bench.

   His legs were shot to pieces and I knew why. Alcohol frazzles the nerves, veins and arteries; probably in that order, and had left me somewhat inflexible after thirty years of sustained inebriation. So I sympathised, you see (or empathised, as we suddenly started saying ten years ago, as if the word had just been invented) and began to take an interest in Barry.

   He had indeed been an electrician and a family man, I later discovered. He drank too much and his wife left him, so he drank some more and lost his job. This drinking business then became his full-time occupation, and little else seemed to matter. For the last ten years his vital routine had been: street-detox-hostel-street. His presence on the town’s streets would become irksome and he would be shipped off to a rehabilitation clinic in the city.

   Here, if security were high enough, he would be thoroughly cleansed, inside and out, and installed in a hostel in one of the less salubrious areas of Manchester, which I consider to be a master-stroke after all the expense of cleaning him up physically and trying, just trying, to modify the goings on inside his head. From there it was a short matter of time before his homing instinct brought him back to the streets of our town and thus completed this never more aptly named vicious circle. He had been detoxified thirteen times.

   I felt myself being compelled towards one of my missions. I know that people considered me to be something of an oddity, with my affected accent and unusual sensitivity, and perhaps, as a consequence, I often found myself drawn towards other odd people. Anything was better than boredom and everyday folk bored me very much indeed. Their inability to rise above material matters, and their dreary hedonism, rendered them uninteresting to me in my current prolonged period of sobriety. In my drinking days I was insulated against people’s inanity, but now found that workaday matters tired me quickly. Not that I took an interest in every vagabond who crossed my path, but Barry had something about him and I was curious to know what it was.

   I believe in love at first sight, you see. I’ve been married three times, which suggests that I am a man who follows his instincts to the very doors of heaven or hell. Now I didn’t fall in love with Barry, but the short period of observation and the exchange of a few trivial words were enough to make an impact that could be said to parallel those cerebral twitches which lay the foundations for future amorous bliss or disaster. I am sure that this goes for friendship too, albeit in a less spectacular way.

   I took a plate of lasagne and chips over to Barry and left him to eat it. Nobody paid much attention to him, beyond perfunctory nods and grunts in his direction. He was wont, I was later told, to repeat himself constantly and to ask for pound coins, so people tended to remain in motion when greeting him. There were about a dozen people in the hall now, having a last hot drink before closing time. These drop-in mornings were ostensibly for the homeless, but the regulars all had homes and came along for the food, hot drinks and company. They scanned the newspapers, some played chess or scrabble, some conversed, and a few did nothing. Once or twice a month the table tennis table would be pulled out, repairs effected on the ailing net, and a desultory game or two played. Desultory since betting on the games had been banned, after leaving one rather dim fellow penniless for a week.

   I thought their days must seem long with no dead languages, literature and philanthropy to occupy them – I also helped out at the church, despite my utter lack of belief – and wondered how they filled the time. They appeared to watch a lot of television, a device which had left my home along with my third wife eight years ago, and I was blissfully and slightly pompously unable to join in any conversations about the latest reality shows, as I believe they are known, soap operas, and other such nonsense. Nor did I know anything about football, so my relationships with most of my acquaintances were necessarily shallow.

   Adele, the paid project worker, began noisily locking the food cupboards – the Line Dancing club had been known to rifle the biscuits of the less privileged – which was her way of saying goodbye. She was eager to return to the office, by way of one or two clothes shops, to spend the afternoon writing up notes on the morning’s events. She had mentioned this necessity to me once and I had asked her what she could possibly find to write about. She said that each client, as she called them, of the drop-in had a case file which needed to be regularly updated. There were also risk assessments to be completed for our occasional walks in the nearby park, health and safety paperwork to be kept up to date, and other bureaucratic requirements that I probably wouldn’t understand. I asked her to try me, but she declined.

   This, she said, was all about funding. It appears that you don’t get funding for a project like this without making it appear to be a quasi-scientific undertaking and that the funding needs to be high enough to pay the highly trained staff required to run the project and secure further funding. When I said that me and Tracy, the cook, could run the show on our own, she laughed and shook her head dismissively. She saw that the world of Social Welfare was a mystery to me and seemed happy to let it remain so.

   On reporting this to Father Ralf, our protestant Irish vicar who was a little ‘High’ for some parishioners’ taste, he said sternly:

  “Don’t rock the boat, Alfred. They pay us rent on the hall.”

  “Do they?”

  “Oh yes. It goes towards the New Church Hall Fund.”

  “Right.”

   And your Irish whisky, I thought. An ex-drinker knows a drinker when he sees one, especially when he sometimes sees him early in the morning and sometimes after lunch. The St. Mark’s New Church Hall Fund, however, was something of a passion with him, so I may be lacking in generosity here, or just jealous that he can drink and I can’t.

   Barry seemed to be in no hurry to leave. It was a dull, icy day in early March and it is likely that he felt that he had mistimed his return to the streets.

  “Where are you off to now, Barry?”

  “To get a drink.”

  “Well, I can stand you a coffee if you’d like.”

   He looked at me through wider eyes and seemed to be thinking.

  “All right.”

   We left the shabby, graffiti decorated, church hall and headed through my neighbourhood to the town centre. The terraced houses sheltered us from the wind as we plodded along, our standard walking pace seeming to coincide, and I tried to make conversation.

  “Where are you staying at the moment?”

  “Street. In a skip.”

  “In a skip? Isn’t it a bit cold at night?”

  “Been worse. Where we going?”

  “Shall we go to the Green Café?”

   The Green Café was among the scruffiest in town and Barry wasn’t dressed for the more elegant establishments, such as they were.

  “Can first.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Need a can first. Need a drink.”

   Given my previous life, as I liked to refer to it, I was by no means shocked by this desire. Barry, I felt sure, was an alcoholic and probably hadn’t had a drink for many hours. His body was demanding what it considered sustenance. I went into a corner shop run by a benign Pakistani woman and took a can of strong lager from the shelf.

  “Alfred! What are you doing?”

  “No, it’s not for me. It’s for a friend in need.”

    She arched her eyebrows and glared at me.

  “I will call in for a paper tomorrow, so you’ll know it wasn’t for me.”

  “I hope so, Alfred. I hope so.”

   The lady, Nadia by name, had known me for a long time, during the years of darkness and the years of light. The first two years of light had been interspersed with brief relapses into the shadows, but the second two with none. I felt a little offended that she could doubt my explanation for my purchase, but I realised that it would have sounded rather odd to her; ‘A friend in need’ indeed!

   Nadia’s shop was liberally stocked with alcoholic drinks of all the cheaper varieties and I once asked her how she felt about selling such wares, practising Muslim that she was.

   “I don’t like it Alfred, I don’t like it at all, but more than half my takings come from alcohol. This area is very poor and there isn’t much work, so they drink, and then there is no work; but my daughters are at university and I must support them. When they graduate, perhaps I will sell this shop.”

  “To another Pakistani?”

  “Probably. We are very patient!”

   I gave Barry his can and steered him down a backstreet. He drank it quickly, but not desperately, and we resumed our walk. He seemed more awake now and looked around more. I hoped that the effects of the beer would keep him going for the next hour or so that I intended to spend with him.

   I found us a discrete table in the Green Café and we sat down. The owner was Stan, a paunchy goliath of fifty with well hidden philanthropic tendencies. The word on the street was that he had plenty of money, but he had as yet eschewed the trend for refurbishment, shiny Italian coffee machines and a two or threefold increase in the drink prices. His coffee was of unknown extraction and spent time maturing in large stainless steel jugs placed on small hotplates. I had never actually seen the coffee being made, but it was hot, drinkable, and cost 60p a mug.

  “So Barry, tell me, what are you going to do?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, I mean, what are you going to do now?”

  “Going to have a coffee.”

  “Yes, yes, but what are your plans?”

  “Plans? No plans today. Tomorrow get clothes, shower, haircut; at Centre.”

  “Centre?”

  “New Start Centre. Tuesdays. Not been for a while. Need to go tomorrow.” He pointed at his revolting clothes.

  “That’s good. Can you go every day?”

  “Tuesday, Thursday. Wednesday, St Peter’s; Friday, St John’s; Monday, St Mark’s.”

  “And at the weekend.”

  “Nowt at the weekend.”

   Stan’s customer base was mostly made up of people of the lower echelons and he only declined admittance to those who smelt very badly indeed. He cast a nostril over our table and was satisfied that no rank odour emanated. Indeed, Barry smelt far better than his clothes would lead you to expect; just a hint of mustiness.

  “What’s it to be?”

  “Two coffees please, Stan?”

   Barry slurped his coffee and wiped his mouth with the back of a grimy hand. I was glad it was shower, new clothes and haircut day tomorrow.

  “So, you’re sleeping in a skip?”

  “Yes, good skip. Quiet.”

  “What if it rains?”

  “Hasn’t rained much since I got back.”

  “Where have you been?”

  “Detox, in Manchester, then in a crappy hostel. Didn’t like it. Full of druggies. Don’t like druggies. Couldn’t stay any longer.”

   This made me laugh, inwardly at least. Chronic drinkers consider themselves to be of a superior caste to those addicted to other drugs. Drug addicts’ teeth fall out; those of drinkers merely rot. Drug addicts beg and steal; drinkers often don’t steal. Chronic drinkers, after all, just do the same as everyone else, except they do it more. They cross a fine line, whereas drug addicts cross a big fat line into illegality and an even earlier death. I knew there was no real difference, but I wouldn’t tell Barry that just now.

  “What are you going to do this afternoon?”

  “Get some money for some drink, and food. Can you lend me a pound?”

  “Yes, I can lend you a pound, but where else will you get money from?”

  “Asking. Borrowing. Know a lot of people. I don’t need to beg. Can’t stand them people sitting there begging with a dog. Always got a bloody dog.”

   I laughed, aloud this time, because it was true. I was later informed that Barry acquired money by touring the town centre and asking everybody he knew, or thought he knew, for the loan of a pound. He rarely stopped and never sat down – that would be begging – and left the centre when he had money enough for his daily needs. Ten pounds was more than enough and the times that he borrowed more he sometimes got into scrapes later in the day. He was quite well known and never caused trouble or alarmed people when he was borrowing and he usually got what he needed within a couple of hours. A pound is a nice round sum and only a small coin. If he had asked for spare change, it would have taken him much longer and couldn’t have been considered a loan. I was surprised that I hadn’t seen Barry before, but I did spend many hours of each day over my books; too many hours I sometimes thought.

  “Where is this skip?”

  “End of Clover Street, near the canal. Don’t tell anyone though; don’t want people bothering me. Neighbours don’t say nothing. I only go there to sleep. Up at the crack of dawn usually. Got to do some work on it later, when it’s dark.”

  “What do you have to do?”

  “Found a nice piece of corrugated roofing to put on top. Left it near last night. Put it on later on.”

  “Do you need any help?”

  “No, no. Don’t want no-one to see me do it.”

  “All right. Another coffee?”

  “No, got to be off. What’s your name?”

  “Alfred.”

  “Can you lend me that quid, Alf?”

  “Yes, but it’s Alfred, not Alf. Think ‘Alfred the Great’.” I gave him the pound.

  “Great, thanks. See you.” He rose to his six feet of slightly crooked height and left the café.

2

   For the rest of the day I thought about Barry quite a lot. The weather changed on Tuesday and grey clouds filled the sky. The wind had dropped and it felt a little less cold, but spring seemed as distant as ever. After lunch I took a walk to Clover Street, the most run down street in the most run down part of town. Several of the houses had metal sheets over the doors and lower windows and looked better for it. None of the remaining tenants had invested in double glazing and the sound of televisions and radios could be heard very clearly from most of the occupied houses. I could only see one satellite dish and there were only two cars on the street, one without wheels. Right at the end of this dead end street, in the shade of the canal embankment, was the skip.

   Nobody had any reason to pass the skip and nowhere to go if they did. I felt conspicuous, standing at the end of this cul-de-sac of life, but the residents seemed to be the indoor types and there was no-one to observe me nosing around. The skip was empty, apart from some wooden boards, a half empty bag of solidified cement, some rags and a small, soiled mattress. It was in such a state of corrosion that holes had appeared in the base and the lower parts of the sides, which would provide welcome drainage for any resident, were it to rain heavily. The thought of sleeping in it made me shudder. Some fifty yards along the overgrown embankment lay a jagged piece of asbestos roofing that I presumed Barry had planned to use to provide himself with cover. He must have been otherwise occupied the previous night.

   My curiosity satisfied, I returned home and spent the afternoon re-reading The Road to Wigan Pier and involuntarily transposing certain scenes to Clover Street. So much for eighty years of progress. I also spent a great deal of time mulling over my proposed mission to improve Barry’s lot. Caution and low expectations should be the order of the day, I told myself, as my only previous full-scale mission had ended in disaster and continued sporadic incursions from that hapless beneficiary.

   A detailed account of my attempt to help Simon would fill many unedifying pages, so, in the interest of brevity, I will, well, keep it brief. Simon had found himself homeless after quarrelling with his long-suffering friend and unremunerated landlord. He was calm and rational when I met him and had ceased to wash down prescription pills with cheap cider. I invited him to stay at my flat until he found suitable accommodation and he quickly secured a cleaning job, went for daily runs, and kept my flat obsessively clean. Then it went as horribly wrong as it possibly could. Re-enter stage right the pills and the cider; enter stage left furious neighbours, the police and the ambulance men, and the curtain falls on the naivety that a man with my curriculum should have long since lost.

   Simon, I was later told (always later), had severe Bipolar Disorder, which in layman’s terms, or at least in Simon’s case, meant that half the time he was fine and the other half he was mental. This was three years ago now and he still follows the same see-sawing pattern, poor man. Now I answer the door to him if I see from the kitchen window that he is dressed in running attire, but, if he is wearing a woolly hat and has a carrier bag, I don’t. I know the signs. Care in the Community, which is what we do nowadays, works for Simon exactly half the time; the other half of the time the community and him don’t mix.

   I could tell you about the time he threw himself in front of a police car, or when he undressed in a supermarket, or about several other incidents that would make any heartless person laugh, but I mention my mission with Simon merely to illustrate what I didn’t intend to happen again. The worst of it was that the unbearable stress and the constant inhalation of chemically produced apple fumes caused me to put a foot back into my own darkness and pull it back with a sore head and shaky hands. This was not to happen again and Barry would be helped in a more conservative manner.

   More cautiously, yes, but no less enthusiastically, did I embark on my work with Barry. Noon the next day saw me approaching St. Peter’s Church Community Centre with something approaching trepidation. I had no apparent reason for going there myself, being a man of a distinction largely acquired through availing myself of the better items of clothing on offer in the town’s burgeoning charity shops, but I was keen to catch up with Barry.

   On entering the spacious hall, the Barry I beheld was of an appearance far less disturbing than that of two days earlier. Taking him from the top down, every portion of him was much improved. His hair was cut short enough not to need combing and he had shaved, or been shaved, in the recent past. His face glowed, not in an altogether healthy way, but denoting signs of capillary movement which had lain unobserved under Monday’s grime. He sported a passable green sweater, sensibly functional dark jeans and elegant slip-on shoes. He also wore socks today. He was seated at the head of a large table of diners and appeared to be discoursing on some point of architecture, with the help of a fork and a fish finger. He hadn’t seen me enter, so I approached the tea urn attendant, a stout female member of the congregation, no doubt, and asked for a cup. I nobly lay my fifty pence coin on the counter and drifted over to a bench in the corner, better to observe my future charge unseen. He may already consider me a potential benefactor and I didn’t want him to alter his behaviour to gratify me.

   The skip was the subject of his address.

  “Slid the roof on easy enough and weighed it down with a couple of breeze blocks. Just left a gap big enough to get in through. Nice and cosy.”

  “But Barry”, interrupted a wizened young man, “what about when it rains hard?”

  “Ah, a bit of thought went into that. Got my mattress on top of some pallets. Water’ll drain out the holes in the bottom of the skip.”

  “Won’t it rain in?” enquired the man, with a downward, diagonal tilt of the hand.

  “Ah, not so as you’d notice. Depends on the wind.”

   While the helpers and the more nimble diners were clearing up, I approached Barry.

  “Hello there, Barry.”

  “Who’re you?”

  “Alfred. We met on Monday.”

  “Ah, Alfred the Great. Great. Can you lend me a pound?”

   Barry’s fresh-alcohol scented breath, not at all the same smell as stale alcohol, made my nostrils tingle and I could see that he was at the height of his lucidity. He had drunk neither too much nor too long ago and had reached that exact point of happiness that I had strived to maintain for thirty years, with very mixed success. A judicious pound, I knew, would prolong his lively state into the afternoon.

   Some critics would condemn what they would consider my feeding of the flames of vice. ‘Tell the man to stop drinking and sort himself out!’ they would cry; but any modern doctor would corroborate my prescription. When a person reaches a state of utter dependence on the stuff, as was Barry’s case, it is inadvisable to close the tap suddenly, as this can produce heart failure and other disagreeable consequences. Years, or at least many uninterrupted months, of application to the bottle are required to reach Barry’s level of addiction and time, thought and medicine are required to re-establish the clean, serene man. For now, we would tend the tiller of Barry’s boat, try to avoid the rapids, and steer him steadily down the river to the sea of redemption. That was the idea anyway, because Barry’s mind held the key, or the corkscrew, that opened or ceased to open the bottles and on Barry’s mind I intended to work.

  “Yes, I’ll lend you a pound later on. So, you’ve got the roof on the skip?”

  “Yes, nice and cosy in there now.”

  “Is it not a bit chilly?”

  “Got my sleeping bag.” He pointed to a blue rucksack over by the coat hooks. “Keep it with me; too many thieves about.”

   We left the church hall and walked down the hill into town. Barry drank a can on a backstreet and we went to the Green Café. Stan raised his eyebrows on seeing Barry’s neat appearance and pointed to a table near the window.

  “What can I get you, gents?”

  “Two coffees please, Stan,” said Barry with much assurance. He really seemed almost normal today, whatever normal might be, and looked smarter than some of the other customers, who comprised workmen, work-less men and economy shoppers.

  “So, Barry. You’ll be all right for now in the skip, but should you not think about getting somewhere to live?”

  “I’m all right in the skip, Alf.”

  “Alfred. But, I mean, do you get any money, any benefits?”

  “No, don’t need them. Too much trouble anyhow.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Bah, you’ve got to have an address, bank account, ID to get a bank account, bond for the house… too much trouble. I’ll stay as I am. It’ll be getting warmer soon.”

  “Yes, I suppose it will.”

   We drank our coffees and spoke little. Barry wasn’t a great conversationalist and I didn’t want to be continually asking him questions. He rarely asked me any, other than the ‘pound petition’, as I began to think of it. I lent him today’s pound and we agreed to meet in two days’ time at St. John’s church in the northern part of town. I stayed to finish my coffee. The café was emptying and Stan began to clear the tables, giving each a symbolic wipe with a grey cloth.

  “So, Alfred, you and Barry becoming pals, are you?” A smile played on his stubbly face.

  “Well, if I can help him at all; I’ve got plenty of time.”

  “And pounds.”

  “Ha, and pounds! I’ve got a jar full of pound coins and I’d only spend them on old books, anyway.”

  “Well, that Barry’s a book in himself. Nowt to be done there Alfred. I tried myself years ago; waste of time. He has his steady times, like now, then he loses it, gets in the shit, and they ship him off somewhere. It’s happened a dozen times.”

  “Thirteen. But what happens?”

  “Well, his drinking gets worse and worse; nasty stuff too. He stops getting himself cleaned up, gets into scrapes, gets beaten up, banged up-”

  “What does he get banged up for?”

  “Have you not seen him drunk yet?”

  “No.”

  “When he really hits it he starts bothering people, following them, swearing at them. He’s a big lad so he scares people who don’t know him; gets done for Drunk and Disorderly normally. Then, if he gets out of order on a Saturday night, he’s apt to get a slapping, or worse. Been beaten up bad a few times.”

   This was news indeed, but not altogether a surprise.

  “But, does he get violent?”

  “No, not violent, not that one. Honest as well; never been known to nick anything. That’s why people put up with him, up to a point.”

  “Well, I don’t know. I think he’s got something about him. Other people turn things around. I mean, look at me.”

  “Yes, I remember when you used to come in here in a right state, pissing people off right, left and centre! Had to chuck you out more than once-”

  “Yes, well, let’s not talk about that just now. But there you are; thirty years on and off the bottle and look at me now.” I tapped the table lightly with two fingers.

  “I know, and I think you’ll be all right now. It’s different with you, though. You’re a thinking man, Alfred. You’re, well, how shall I put it, almost a gentleman-”

  “Almost?!”

  “Give it another year and I’ll take out the almost, then. What I mean is, that you knew you weren’t doing right, and you thought about it; you reasoned, and you’ve got your books and stuff. Barry’s not like that. He’s a working man who’s stopped working. No more beer and skittles.”

  “Beer and skittles?”

  “Well, you know, a working man does his work, then he goes down the pub or the club, plays his darts and pool, watches his football, has a few pints. Next day, he’s back at work. You take his pints away and what have you got? That’s his social life up the spout. He’s not going to drink orange juice and get the piss ripped out of him, is he? You get Barry off the booze and what have you got? What’s he going to do? In any case I can’t see him being fit to work again. Electrician he was; good one too, I believe.”

  “I think you’re being rather cynical, Stan. There’s got to be more to people’s lives than that. I mean, what do you do with yourself?”

  “Me! Stuck at home with the wife, watching the bloody box. Down the pub Saturday nights. Since the kids left home, I prefer being here.”

   Sobering thoughts filled my head as I walked from the café to the supermarket to get my weekly shop. If Stan was right, there wasn’t much hope for Barry, or for most of the human race for that matter. In the gigantic twenty-four hour supermarket I wandered from aisle to aisle with my trolley and picked up my rice, pasta, garlic, olive oil and vegetables. I had become quite an accomplished cook, in my way and ate healthily and surprisingly cheaply. Books again. A morning in the library was sufficient to effect the radical change in my diet that agrees with me so well. No more pies, pasties and frozen chips for me.

  I wondered what Barry ate, apart from his midday meals at the churches and charities and concluded that he most likely ate little else. He wasn’t fat, so his calorie intake probably came mostly from the drink. I picked up some vitamin B tablets for him. Then I got him some nuts, raisins, biscuits, pre-packed cakes, bottled water, vests, socks, underpants, a rainproof jacket, a woolly hat, gloves, a torch, batteries and a toothbrush. I wandered down the vast drinks aisle for old times’ sake and was reminded of the scandalously cheap price of some of the products. Ten or fifteen pounds would probably be enough to kill a healthy man, if he had an eye for a bargain. Thirty pounds would keep a person comfortably numb for a week. It used to cost a lot more than that, I knew, and I wondered why the government now allowed it. It must have its reasons and I doubted they were good ones.

   On bagging up my purchases, I realised that I would never be able to carry it all back to my flat, so I put the bags back into the trolley and trundled down past the cafés to the taxi rank – this supermarket was like a town in itself – and got home to do an hour’s Latin before tea. Barry might never develop a taste for Latin, but surely there was more to life than beer and skittles?

   The following day I went to the library to do some research. Could it be so difficult to find a place to live? Millions of workless people seemed to be doing just fine, including myself. I am approaching retirement age and will in no way feel that I deserve the pension that other people have contributed to for the last twenty years. During my first years of serious drinking I managed to hold down my job as a clerk by using many clever devices to avoid arousing suspicion.

   I was what they now call a ‘functioning alcoholic’, then known as a lush. For almost ten years I very rarely missed a day’s work and never arrived late. I have always detested vodka, but that gross misuse of the potato was my chosen midweek drink for many years, due to its relatively in-odorous quality. A flask of the stuff lay beside my eye drops, toothpaste, papers and pens in the briefcase I always carried. My colleagues puzzled at my taking my briefcase out with me at lunchtime and considered me overzealous. It amuses me to look back on those years now and remember how remarkably astute I felt myself to be.

   There was I, happy and animated all day and every day and nobody knew my secret! My colleagues lived their humdrum lives with their little wives, while my life was one long bacchanalian pleasure cruise. I did my work competently, for it was easy work for me, and looked forward keenly to the evening’s carousing. Hangovers were unheard of and a large glass of vodka and orange juice (never neglect the vitamins) invariably washed down my morning toast.

   Alas, in time the slim flask was replaced by a half bottle and my briefcase ceased to puzzle my colleagues, or, more importantly, my boss. I was given an ultimatum, roughly coinciding with one from my second wife, so I gave up the job and the wife gave up on me. I rented a room and set about slowly drinking the proceeds from half a house. By this time I was feeling less astute, but I digress from my story.

   I found a book which explained the ins and outs of the benefits system, but it was ten years old, so I had no choice but to resort to the computers. My phobia of television stretches to all screen-clad apparatus, but I couldn’t deny the usefulness of the internet. I often used it to look up historical facts, biographical details of obscure authors, and other literary trivia, but as I now approached the IT suite, the usual sea of blue screens confronted me. The passion for what I believe is called social networking has transformed my once beloved library into a social club for the socially inept.

   I sprang for a computer, recently vacated by one repellent youth, and found that I had eighteen minutes before his time expired and another young philistine would doubtless take his place. My opinion of today’s youth is not high; perhaps I don’t see the best in them, or of them. Eighteen minutes proved to be enough time to jot down a few relevant names, addresses and telephone numbers, before a smartly dressed man of my own age came to claim his surfing rights. Perhaps the elderly will inherit cyberspace after all.

The Lottery Man – A Very Short Story

   For over thirty years Paco did his daily rounds of the bars and cafés with his clipboard of lottery tickets hung across his chest. This man, crippled by polio as a child, was known well by everyone in the village and was himself thought to be a lucky omen. He had always bought a small fraction of every number he offered and almost twenty years ago he brought joy to the village by distributing a winning ticket of which many people had bought a share.

   Land mortgages were paid, tractors were replaced, and houses rebuilt. The people here were pragmatic and little ostentation was observed. He himself came out of it very nicely and his modest needs were met for life. He bought a specially adapted 2CV car, which he rarely drove, and continued his daily rounds. Every morning he would take a coffee or a beer in each of the village’s five establishments and never offered his tickets for sale; people would buy if they wanted to. After lunch and a short siesta he would repeat his morning’s route. This, he explained, was his life. He loved to talk and to listen, to serious news and to gossip alike, and saw no need to change his habits.

   Five months ago all this changed forever. He had carried and sold a large number of fractions of the winning ticket in the huge Christmas lottery. The legendary win of twenty years ago was insignificant compared to this. Over fifty families had become rich overnight and the prosperity of the village was assured. Paco was now an old man and had not bought a share of the ticket, had indeed not bought a share of any ticket for some time, and he did not care. His 2CV was still reliable and he wanted for nothing. He felt blessed by this great occurrence and looked forward to spending his remaining years basking serenely under the glowing lamp of prosperity which he had lit.

   Along with the euphoria of the winners soon came the complaints and supplications of the dozen or so people who had let lapse their weekly purchase of that ticket number, in some cases months earlier. Paco had sold some outstanding tickets to other people, had returned the rest to the lottery administration, and nothing was to be done. They must have known this, but still they pursued him and hounded him and, worst of all, called him a cheat and a liar. They were mostly working men with steady jobs who now felt poor. They couldn’t bear to see the new tractors and four-wheel-drive cars parked outside their bar or café and the constant movement of builders’ wagons, so they took out their frustration on Paco. He began to avoid certain places and to spend more and more time at home. By spring he was no longer to be seen with his clipboard of tickets.

   Paco’s funeral was a quiet affair, as was the desire of his few surviving family members.

The Stamp – A Very Short Story

   Adam hadn’t stolen anything since pocketing a bag of jelly babies in Woolworth’s towards the end of the seventies. The adrenaline rush, combined with the sugar from the stolen sweets, had been followed by such an onset of faintness and self-loathing that he immediately shelved his pubescent dream of becoming a career criminal. He had got away with it and that was enough.

   Back then he could have bought the jelly babies had he wished to and their acquisition had been in no way life-changing. The theft he now planned in his forty-eighth year, however, was of an item that he was unable to purchase and that would avoid his life changing from one of fragile respectability to one of humiliating penury, largely due to his lamentable investment strategies. As for any subsequent self-loathing, he felt that age, experience, and his work as a solicitor had long cured him of such trifling emotions.

   One of his clients was an ageing, unflattering philatelist called Mr Benson. Unflattering to Adam because the man held lawyers in even lower esteem than Adam himself did. Adam visited Mr Benson periodically at his Georgian town house and on successive visits observed how the old man’s mind and body crumbled before his eyes; the eyes that Mr Benson now increasingly depended on to read and reread what was to become the final codicil of his will.

  There was money, there was property, there were stamps and there was the stamp. Mr Benson possessed an unused 1841 Twopenny Blue worth a preposterous amount of money and which would finally be left to his great-niece because, he said, it would cause the greatest amount of annoyance to the largest number of family members.

   Mr Benson perceived during their conversations that, as well as being a lawyer, Adam also appeared to be a human being. He was flattered by the interest the younger man took in his collection and could often be prevailed upon to talk Adam through the more spectacular sections of it. Adam listened, apparently spellbound, to tales of heart-stopping auctions, startling acquisitions and devastating near misses which had occurred during the compilation of this neatly bound assortment of useless bits of paper. He had been shown the Twopenny Blue twice and had been suitably impressed by the stamp’s grandeur, not, however, becoming too emotional to fail to note the simple combination of the safe into which it was returned with trembling hands.

   Adam’s cash-flow problems did not prevent the online purchase of a rather expensive postage stamp and, like any good family solicitor, his concerns regarding the health of his most valued client increased in proportion with Mr Benson’s diminishing vitality. On one of his visits he plied Mr Benson with sufficient tea for him to require a visit to the bathroom. The stamp that fluttered against Adam’s heart in his shirt pocket as he said goodbye was not the same one that had lain there during this and his last three visits, although it too had a nominal value of two pennies and that same old blue hue.

   Mr Benson passed away that winter and his grand-niece was delighted with the computer games that the £150 she received for that silly stamp enabled her to buy. The twice-stolen Twopenny Blue was returned to its rightful owners in Gloucester and Adam’s two years in prison made him rue the day he walked out of Woolworth’s with the jelly babies.