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.”
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.”
“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.”
“His son was with him.”
“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.”
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.”
“Thanks anyway. What do I owe you?”
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.”
“It’s good brain food.”
“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.
“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.”
“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? 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.
“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 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”