Work

Week 55: Riverbed

Wild carrot seedhead

Wild carrot seedhead

Riverbed stones

Riverbed stones

Translucent grasses, late afternoon

Translucent grasses, late afternoon

Algae-covered pool, rich in life

Algae-covered pool, rich in life

Two geckos, well camouflaged

Two geckos, well camouflaged

 

This landscape is ever changing, though it’s been hard this week to find much time away from my desk to explore it. The dry riverbed continues to fascinate me. I can walk in areas I couldn’t go before. As I approach an algae-filled pool, if I’m careful enough I will catch sight of the turtles just as they slide into the water to hide. Soon after, a single footfall will touch on the invisible electric current that sends all the sunbathing frogs arcing into the pool. By the slimy water’s edge I can watch fish shooting like arrows into shade, small snakes wriggling under rocks. Such rich pickings, they have every reason to be afraid, though not of the clumsy human.

The days get hotter, but refreshing breezes keep them bearable. The evenings are beautiful: warm and starry. We heard rumour of rain; it finally fell, but in so few drops it would have been possible to count them.

P1050969At home the bakery has taken shape: the door has arrived (it look a long time to come) and the window is now complete with its glass. However, inexplicable delay has once again beset the new electrical connection, just when we thought we had finally jumped through all the hoops required to complete that circuit. It would be so good to get this finished, just as interest in Husband’s bread is growing.

Maria has started to wear the tall straw hat of many Algarve women, and I would like to know where she got it from. (I do like hats.) I haven’t seen this style in the shops that sell hats to tourists. Maria and Eleuterio pass by our house quite regularly these days, usually on the tractor, with the dogs, Lordy and Estrela, running behind. Estrela is still cheeky and excitable and comes into the house when she can, but she doesn’t steal shoes any longer. She must have outgrown that phase. Handsome Lordy is as coolly independent as ever. He has no interest in exploring our domain. A few wags of the tail to acknowledge our existence, then off to do his own thing. Even the dog treats we specially got fail to appeal to him, though Estrela is always keen to have a few if they are on offer. A couple of times Maria and Eleuterio have told us that Estrela is pregnant, but then each time she has turned out not to be. They know we adore the dogs and I think they’d like to give us a puppy, but I haven’t been too disappointed at the failure of this to happen. I don’t know if we are ready for a responsibility like that yet.

Next week I shall be in England. One reason is to attend the launch of a cookbook I worked on, Everything Stops For Tea, whose publication is to raise money for Marie Curie. I’m looking forward to that. I won’t be writing a post from there, so the next time I sit down at my desk to write – with its view through the bougainvillea to the meditation hill beyond – will be in two weeks’ time.

The window above the bakery door has been fitted with the glass made by Taran Flaten

A colourful corner of our home, with the glass for the window above the bakery door made by Taran Flaten

 

Week 33: Fire and water

Évora is a well-preserved medieval Portuguese town and a World Heritage Site. This picture doesn’t do it justice, I just liked the way the fading sunlight caught a single building

Évora is a well-preserved medieval Portuguese town and a World Heritage Site. This picture doesn’t do it justice, I just liked the way the fading sunlight caught a single building

I liked the light here too. Arraiolos, in Évora district, where rugs have been made since the Middle Ages

I liked the sky here. Arraiolos, in Évora district, where rugs have been made for centuries and traditional designs can still be bought

 

On New Year’s Day we drove with friends north into Alentejo to visit Évora. The main reason for visiting, besides its being a beautiful place, was that Husband’s friend had as a young traveller many years ago wound up here and stayed put for months, making and selling bread to get by. There’s a whole story there – for another time. The next day we came home, our friends having taken the train to Lisbon. I went immediately to see Horse. I’d given him extra apples and carrots the previous day to see him through.

Horse wasn’t there. He’d gone back to his stable. He’d walked back, of his own accord, while I was away. Someone saw him pass by, texted the owners, and they opened the paddock for him. He’s a creature who knows his own mind, is Horse. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about him any more but I do miss him. Maybe he will need another holiday one day and come back.

Horse

Horse

Fire

An aspect of our original dream that hasn’t exactly come true is that of finding of an old Algarvian bread oven to restore and bake in. This oven isn’t old, but it’s functional, and with our visitors we tried it out for the first time. The most romantic part about it was using two wonderful, and genuinely old, pieces of handmade equipment – a peel, and a thing for shoving embers around, which might have a name but I don’t know it – which First Friends found for us in an long-abandoned ruin.

Our outside oven

Our outside oven

oven2

The oven heated up well enough to bake two loaves perfectly (and two imperfectly). Good, and good fun. We probably should have left the embers in for longer, but they did warm us up a treat in the wheelbarrow as the sun set.

Embers

Embers

The oven won’t do for serious breadmaking. Husband is right now in Germany where he will visit a specialist company to choose a well-engineered, stone-lined oven which will produce reliable, even, consistent heat and bake enough loaves for a small concern like he is setting up.

Water

We have a well in our garden, which provides water for the house. We also have the use of Eleuterio’s well by the river, which provides water for the garden. Our own well feeds a 30,000-litre cisterna under the front veranda. We have since discovered that what most people have is a small cisterna with a valve that automatically operates a pump when the level drops and refills itself. We have a massive cisterna, which needs refilling infrequently, but has to be operated by combination of instinct and hard work. After a month of living here, we thought we’d better check the level.

Not easy. The metal-lined lid had rusted in place since it was last opened. It took hours of ingenuity, spread over several days and interspersed with consultations far and wide, just to get the lid off.

cisterna

Almost empty

Almost empty

Getting water to the cisterna from the well involved a lot of hose, a pump, a valve and some kind of an air-lock screw – I don’t know what I’m talking about, Husband did all this – each operated separately and by hand. The first water that emerges is rather brown, so that goes into the garden. As soon as clear water flows, the hose has to be dragged to the cisterna – I do know what I’m talking about, I did this – and it was rather like trying to land a shark or some other powerful, wriggling thing that doesn’t want to be caught. We got the cisterna half full, gave the well a rest for a week or so, then did it all again and filled the tank to the top. I do wonder if the Sensibles were as sensible as I thought them.

Bom ano novo

And finally a very happy new year to you. Thank you so much for reading the blog – and, to those of you who have, for  commenting.

Week 27: Excess of joy . . . and other stuff

First bread baked in our house

First bread baked in our house

Our first citrus harvest: navel oranges and grapefruit

Our first citrus harvest: navel oranges and grapefruit

Husband set about painting three rooms of our new house while I stayed on at the Chalet to work until the time came to move out completely. We said sad goodbyes to First Friends, although we’re only just up the valley from them, and moved in properly to our house. We can hardly believe how much we love it here. Our own place. My lungs, now healthy again, fill up every day with soft, scented air. We listen to birdsong all day long. The views are soothing to the soul. But life is rarely, if ever, perfect.

When we started looking at houses, the top of our priority list was good internet access. I need it for my work. The estate agents we were initially in touch with said this should be the least of our concerns, but I guess that’s because they thought we’d buy a property on a development next to the coast or a golf course or something like that. Somewhere along the line, of course, we ended up falling for a house by the river in a remote valley.

We remained positive. The telecoms company in Tavira told us, ‘No problem.’ A satellite would give us television and internet access. We’re not interested in the television, we asserted. If it comes with the package, OK, but really what we want is the internet connection. No problem, she said, it does both. Husband was speaking in somewhat faltering Portuguese; I was speaking apologetically in English. Whichever the language: No problem.

Everyone we’ve spoken to here who’s been through the same process has been too kind to mock, ‘You didn’t believe that, did you?’

Two telecoms engineers appeared quite quickly. They were an uncle and nephew. The nephew, with his pony tail and his bright, shining brown eyes, had worked around Europe as a DJ and spoke very good English. He liked to talk, too. ‘We Portuguese are good communicators. We’re not good planners, but we’re good communicators.’ They were going to install the dish. ‘This gives you good TV. Do you want one cable or two? Two, and you can watch programmes and record at the same time.’

‘What we really want is internet access.’

‘This is just TV, not internet.’

Oh.

He went on to tell us that he was sick of capitalism, that he felt it had had its day. ‘When I meet someone, I don’t want to know what they have. I want to know who they are, what they can do. Not what they own. It’s time for a worldwide revolution. Governments don’t work in the people’s interests.’

Swept up in feel-good revolutionary fervour, we decided not to press the internet point. It was hardly their fault, after all.

The next day a new engineer came, this time to set up the landline. ‘Ah, there are gaps in the connection. You have missing telegraph poles. It’s the woodpeckers.’ He left, and no more has been heard.

At least all our stuff arrived. In the evening of the following day, Friday, two sturdy and cheerful East Anglians, both called Roger, showed up in the deep dark with a van. (Darkness is dark here.) I say ‘showed up’, but Husband had to meet them on the main road to help them find the way; it’s difficult enough in daylight, impossible at night. The deal with the delivery company had been that our belongings would be decanted from the pantechnicon into vans because of the inaccessibility of our setting. One pantechnicon = two vans, I’d have thought. Well, it did, but it was one van making two trips. After emptying the first van-load, the two indefatigable Rogers left, to return two hours later, unguided this time, with the second load. Just after midnight, they finished. They reassembled the bed and the wardrobe, waved an upbeat goodbye and vanished into the darkness.

Desk has arrived into my study! Legs are stowed away . . .

Desk has arrived into my study! Legs are stowed away . . .

. . . now returned to rightful position

. . . now returned to their rightful positions

Our possessions, relatively modest in the context of London, here feel like immodest wealth. Eleutherio, the neighbouring farmer, dropped by on Sunday to pick up two armchairs and some chests of drawers left by the Sensibles. Husband was midway through unpacking. Stuff was spilling out of boxes on to every surface inside our home. It was like we wanted to show off everything we owned. At least our pony-tailed revolutionary came round before the arrival of all our goods and saved us that embarrassment.

Eleutherio, I’m sure, doesn’t care. He’s a happy man. He has a big smile and shining brown eyes, but he’s probably too old for revolutionary zeal. He has a lovely wife, and two absurdly joyful dogs: Lordy and Estrela. He drove off in his loaded pickup, his two adoring dogs alongside him in the passenger seat.

We received a text message from the telecoms company telling us that the installation is now complete and we are customers on a 24-month contract. We have no landline, no internet access of any description and very patchy mobile reception. For now, needing wifi is a good excuse to visit First Friends or go out for coffee and cake. In the longer term, I think we need to recruit the help of our agent. If anyone can make the telecoms company keep their promises, she can.

Week 25: ‘We live here’

 

Tavira’s beautiful ‘Roman’ bridge, a rebuilt medieval, possibly Moorish structure

Tavira’s beautiful ‘Roman’ bridge, in fact a rebuilt medieval, possibly Moorish structure

My sole photograph in Tavira food market

My sole photograph in Tavira food market

I work with a number of authors repeatedly. We get used to one another, I suppose. The latest offering from one such regular, something of a television celebrity, is about to reach me. The first book of his I worked on, many years ago now, was the accompaniment to a TV series about France. The thing I remember most about that – it struck me at the time and I’ve never forgotten it – was the annoyance the crew expressed about the British ex-pats in France. The ‘we live heres’ they came to refer to them, disparagingly. Their constant assertion of their status was felt to be arrogant, I think. Certainly not good telly.

Now I’m one of them and I can see things differently. The assertion of ‘we live here’ comes more from a position of disbelief, shock almost, than arrogance. It is enormously different to live elsewhere, as opposed to having a holiday home or visiting a place. It is worth asserting. If only to remind yourself.

For this reason I stopped short at one photograph of the food market in Tavira. I saw the looks on the nearby stallholders’ faces and I realised that you cannot be a ‘we live here’ and take photographs while shopping. A very friendly Angolan woman whose small restaurant we like has offered to take us round the market and introduce us to people there. This would be wonderful, if it happens. She recognised our need to be accepted as ‘we live heres’ when we asked her where she got her avocados from; they’re the best.

Dry riverbed

Dry riverbed

Waiting for the river

The sun is still warm but the nights are cold and the daytime air can be chilly. A few storms recently brought a lot of rain, which means the river could be back soon. Apparently it starts as a drizzle of brown sludge, then turns into a crystal clear flow. The people who live near the river – including us, soon – celebrate its return. You need to be alert if you want to catch the point of its arrival.

Along the riverbed, which I’ve been exploring, are a number of basins that still hold a little water, somewhat green and soupy. When the river is full these become swimming holes. We have two dipping spots not far from our house that look perfect for next spring.

One day after this post goes out is our escritura ceremony, when we – at last – become the legal owners of the house.

Week 21: Leg log

Hi, Artbot. I know how you feel. Been in need of a rest myself lately

Hi, Artbot. I know how you feel. Been in need of a rest myself lately

I admit to having been weary lately. The goal, that lovely house in the Algarve, has felt further away, not closer. Here there seems to be an endless list of things to do; none of them onerous, but all of them time-filling. The weather turned dreadful: low, white skies and constant precipitation from drizzle to hailstones like marbles. And there’s been the Leg. It sometimes feels like this has become a blog about a leg. (A bleg?) Needless to say, none of this has been easy for the owner of the Leg. While you are forced to go about on crutches, you lose the use of your hands. This means you have to rely on someone else to fetch and carry. This is no fun for the owner of the Leg, and it’s not much fun for the Fetcher and Carrier either.

On top of all this comes work. But I love my work, and the three authors I’ve been editing lately have all been, in their own vastly different ways, a delight. One of them I had a meeting with this week, but the other two I haven’t yet met, in spite of being on my seventh (?) book with one of them. That’s by way of reminding myself that being in the Algarve won’t make any difference to my work, not once I’ve got the internet connection established anyway.

Then came more good news about the Leg. It is still not yet eight weeks since the operation, which was initially the period during which Husband was not to use the Leg at all. There was a reprieve – only six weeks post-op he was told he could start putting weight gently on the toes. Now, another visit to the fracture clinic, and the all-clear. Back to normal leg work, as much as he feels capable of. It will take time to build the muscle back up, but there are no medical restrictions. The crutches can be used for confidence or in case of tiredness, but should otherwise be cast aside. It’s that speed-healing vegetarian diet, must be. Not to mention all the care and consideration from Wife and Mother-in-law . . .

Next, an email from First Friends, who had been on a walk to our house, and told us that the bougainvillea is blossoming again and the pomegranate tree has fruit. The air, after light rain, was fragrant of pine and eucalyptus.

Our spirits have lifted.

By the time of next week’s blog, we will be waiting to board the ferry to Bilbao.

Cannot leave off this week without some bread

Cannot leave off this week without some bread

Weeks 17 to 19: Rural idyll

I have really missed writing this blog. And so, although Husband is not yet back on two legs and we are not yet off to the Algarve, here I am again, taking up the story so far.

Robot made by Dad, and re-found by us. I named him Artbot, after his maker.

Robot made by Dad, and re-found by us. I named him Artbot, after his maker

I have not managed to capture the Lancaster on film yet

I have not managed to capture the Lancaster fully on film yet. It does move fast . . .

On Friday, it will be six weeks since Husband had the operation on his knee and that will be the day when he can finally begin to put weight on the right leg again, which will make getting around a lot easier. He’s keen to get back to driving, which has been my domain since the accident. The fact that I have had to get behind the wheel has been a good thing, because I had developed demons about driving and now I seem to be defeating them.

My mum appears not to have minded our moving in and turning her house into part care home, part office. She generously said the grab bars fitted in the bathroom might even be useful to her one day. I’ve edited two – getting on for three – important books in my half of the dining room. (Important to me, that is, not necessarily to the world.) Husband has taken Dad’s spot in the living room: the armchair in the corner with the footstool. And we’ve been having a grand time together, the three of us, in high good humour.

I made one trip to London. I had a lot to do in a day and ended up with both a mild asthma attack and a nose bleed, and in spite of these I still felt a tiny amount of regret that we’ve given up our stake in this fantastic city. The train journey back involved two changes, finally winding up at a tiny station in Lincolnshire – two platforms and a level crossing. The young guard asked to check my ticket just before I arrived and I struggled to find it. I apologised; said it had been a long day. I finally located it and he saw that I’d travelled from London. He widened his eyes. ‘Ooh, I bet you’re glad to be back,’ he said. And, strangely, I was. It was evening, and my car was the only one in the car park. I drove back through dark, silent roads and felt very, very calm.

Fabulous bread continues to be made by the man on one leg

Fabulous bread continues to be made by the man on one leg

Wheelchair on loan from local Red Cross agency

Wheelchair on loan from local Red Cross agency

Week 10: The importance of timing

After more than eight weeks of inaction on the part of our buyer’s solicitors, we became truly nervous. I say ‘inaction’, but that’s not quite right. They received copies of the documents relating to the sale, and lost them. They received a second set of copies, and lost those too. That’s quite active, in a way.

I began to smell a rat. Husband smelt a bigger rat. The neighbours downstairs found an actual dead rat in the garden and that did smell, but that’s a macabre coincidence. Husband and I argued over the size and odoriferousness of our metaphorical rats, and it all became a bit upsetting.

We have not met the buyer. The reassurances as to his commitment that we were receiving from the agent were sounding hollow. I came to the conclusion that we would have to find a new buyer, and that to do so via a new agent would be a good idea. I would go to the flashy agent around the corner, the one with plate-glass windows and liveried cars, and challenge them to find us a buyer on a fast-track sale. We are trying to get our sale to complete just after the fulfilment of Husband’s notice period.

First, I ought to check in with our solicitor. I called at 10 a.m. No, still nothing from buyer’s solicitors. Would all our paperwork be transferable to a new buyer, I asked. Yes, theoretically. So we’re already part way there on a new sale. Yes, he said. I then suggested we give the existing buyers until 11.30 a.m., and if nothing was heard, I would initiate a new selling process. He promised to ring at 11.30 to tell me either way.

I went back to my work. It’s a crime novel, quite an unusual one, but it has a common fault. Many crime novels and thrillers have hitches in the timing. Often the action is described carefully day by day so that a week or two elapses in ‘real’ time, while in the background two whole seasons cycle by. Or one plot strand finds itself on a slightly different timeline, and doesn’t connect with another plot strand when it should. Or the days and the weeks and the clock times just don’t add up. You have to take quite a forensic approach to spot these things, but that’s what I do. I like to look for a solution to the problem, too, though ultimately it’s up to the author. Even the best-selling and most accomplished crime and thriller writers make mistakes with timing.

And so, my attention elsewhere – my attention, indeed, where it should be – I wasn’t fully conscious that I had electrified a small group of people. Our solicitor had spoken to boss solicitor, who had spoken to agent, who had spoken to buyer, who it transpires really does want the flat. The electrical current was remarkably effective. At 11.33 a.m. I received notification that the buyer’s solicitor had raised all the enquiries related to the sale.

So that’s what you have to do! You have to say you are going to withdraw from a sale to get anything to happen. I feel slightly despoiled by the whole wretched process . . .

. . . but not to the extent that I wasn’t prepared to seize my advantage and run with it. Twenty-four hours later, I got all participants to agree that to exchange contracts on the sale in a week’s time was both desirable and possible. As this week’s update gets posted, that’s just two more days away.

 

My mum

Mum 1

We spent the weekend with my mum. In her mid-eighties she’s every bit as lovely and as stylish as she was fifty years ago (only that she no longer makes her own clothes).

Mum with some of her brood

Mum with some of her brood

Mum and Dad

Mum and Dad

Our decision to move to Portugal hasn’t been entirely easy for her, but this weekend we looked at pictures of the house and its surrounds, and I think she could see herself there. She was also reminded of the times she lived in hotter climates herself. We looked at flights, and discovered plenty of well-timed and good-value journeys from East Midlands airport to Faro. We got rather carried away with this, and thought we might just book a flight on the spot. Then Husband said,

‘Better wait until the house is ours.’

Ah, yes. All in good time.

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