Monthly Archive: July 2014

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.

Week 9: Back ‘home’

The agricultural coop in Sta Catarina

The agricultural co-op in Sta Catarina

Hmm. I was caused to question the limpidity of the Doutora of Taxes’ explanation when we were with the lawyer on Wednesday. It seems I hadn’t understood an aspect of the fiscal number/residency relationship after all. No matter. The advogado knows the doutora and they will confer. I have the same issue – of non-comprehension – with my accountant in the UK. Through whatever alchemy he uses, he comes up with the amount I need to pay in tax. Occasionally I try to understand how the figure is calculated. I don’t want to question it, I just want to understand it. His latest email to me began: ‘You do not try my patience. You simply have a totally different skill set and knowledge base.’ How diplomatic. Better just accept that bureaucracy is not for the uninitiated. These people undertake years of training.

Our lawyer in Portugal has a very pleasant demeanour, with something of a poker face. Even after we’d told him that the land of our prospective property was not fenced but had some markers (we thought); that the property had been more than one address originally; that part of the water supply was on someone else’s land with a verbal agreement and no meter, he managed to look unruffled. But he did say:

‘Ah well, it is the real Algarve.’

I wonder if he knew how pleased I was to hear that.

Let us see what complications emerge, and hope for the best that those with the necessary knowledge base can sort them out.

I mostly travel with lemons in my suitcase these days. Gift from First Friends’ tree

I mostly travel with lemons in my suitcase these days. Gift from First Friends’ tree

On the way to the airport we saw the buttercup flash of an oriole – the golden bird known in Portuguese as papa-figos or ‘fig-pecker’ – passing in front of us. The journey home was comfortable. I say ‘home’ because London still is, and feels like, home. The smell of mountain herbs has been replaced by diesel fumes, the noise of cicadas with sirens, and an entire colour palette has been removed from in front of our eyes, but it still feels like coming home. Husband remains 100 per cent happy, committed and unwavering. I, while I wouldn’t change our plans for the world, and have every pair of fingers crossed that they will come to fruition, do still feel fluttery nerves about it all.

Flat sale

In London I visited our estate agent to find that the buyer’s solicitor has apparently ‘lost’ the files for a second time, and that the estate agent’s progress chaser left her job a week or so earlier, with no replacement and no word to us. We would have every reason to withdraw from this sale but, assured of the buyer’s commitment, we are hanging on in. At least the prospect of loss enables me to experience how I would feel if we couldn’t make this move: and I know that, nerves aside, I really want to try out this new life.


This will be where we get our olives pressed

This will be where we get our olives pressed

Week 8: In the Algarve


‘We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.’ Austerlitz, in the book of the same name by W. G. Sebald.

How the garden is looking

We arrived in the Algarve on Monday morning and will be flying back to London on Wednesday afternoon; these are the flights we booked while in Italy, after Herr Sensible got hold of Husband by mobile phone on the threshold of an Etruscan tomb. It is hot and dry here, almost too bright for photography. The night is warm, with stars refusing to be entirely outshone by a bright yellow moon.

We have been busy. First we had a meeting with our Doutora of Taxes. She was impressive. A complex set of rules was made limpid. The decisions we needed to make about our residency status are now done, and that tight knot of worry I had is undone. The details are, I think, too dry and dull to relate here. Anyway, so far so good. In common with our lawyer, whom we shall also see again while we are here, her tone was friendly and her knowledge sharp. It occurs to me we’ve been very lucky with our professionals so far.

Meeting on the terrace.

Meeting on the terrace

We have also sat around a table on the terrace of our house-to-be (all being well) with the estate agent and the Sensibles and discussed terms and timings. We are about to enter the contractual stages, and will be handing over a sum of money, an agreed percentage of the final price, to show commitment. This brings about a commitment on both sides, since if the sellers were to pull out they would have to pay us double the money to release themselves. We have no particular fear of that.

We aim to complete in mid-November, and to overlap with the Sensibles by a few weeks beforehand, which means arriving in the Algarve in October to begin our lives here. This period of overlap will allow us to get the landline and internet connection set up ready for our moving in. It will also allow us to learn how everything works, and to meet the neighbouring farmers who play an important role in the life of the house: they pick the olives and carobs, and once a year they clear the land of dry vegetation to make it fire-safe. One of the two wells on which the house relies is on a piece of their land, and the agreement to use it needs to pass over to us. For these and many reasons this will be a relationship that is vital to us.

All still depends on our sale in London being completed successfully. Unlike in Portugal – and, so far as I can see, unlike in almost every developed country – in the UK there is no commitment on either side for the many weeks it takes solicitors to do whatever they do to process a property transaction. Nothing is certain until exchange of contracts. We are keen to reach that stage.


All-important water

This external cisterna supplies the garden. Beneath the house another cisterna stores 30,000 litres of water, drawn from the main well, which is for household use. We will have to think harder about water, where it comes from and how much there is of it, than we are used to.


Week 7: The joy of desk

deskThis rather unlovely beast is my desk and has been mine for more than twenty years. I reckon I’ve edited upwards of 800 books at this desk. And it’s as well for me to remember, amid all the excitement of flat-selling and house-buying and dreams of sunshine and citrus, that this is really what my life is about: many hours of labour at this particular coalface. What has been fantastic is the reaction of my publishing colleagues (I probably should call them clients, but I’d rather not) to my move, which has been entirely positive. Excitement for me at our adventure, and no concern over the greater working distance.

The desk itself is of particular importance. It might not be considered beautiful by many, but I love it and have done all my best work at it. It is a piece of ex-MOD (Ministry of Defence) furniture, picked from a warehouse sale in Lincolnshire in the early 1990s. Its being MOD furniture of a certain era means several things: it’s made of solid oak; it’s designed for transport – more on that in a moment – and it’s reminiscent of my childhood.

At the age of six or seven, I believed that the RAF uniform was the universal uniform of Fathers. I was surprised to encounter a schoolmate whose father was not in the RAF; I thought that a most odd kind of father to have. Now I know it’s more the other way round: it’s growing up in RAF quarters with oaken MOD furniture and moving every two or three years that could be considered odd. But I never minded it. I loved living in the Middle East (though barely remembered, I was so small) and Cyprus; I loved packing up and moving every so often. That’s partly why I’m so excited now. I’ve suppressed my nomadic nature for too long. The thirteen years we have spent in this flat is longer by a factor of four than I’ve ever lived at any address. And I need to go back to the sun.

wing nutLook at this! Simple wing nuts hold the desk legs firm. They are easily removed, and the legs fit into those special compartments under the top, again held in place by wing nuts. When it comes to deciding what to take with us, this is a dead cert. This desk goes with me wherever.


This is my dad in Aden in off-duty uniform, on the left. (He added the caption many decades later.) I love this photograph. The Yemeni man in his smart uniform had requested the picture, but I’m not sure by whom it was taken since my father still has his camera around his neck. Anyway, it was, and it’s in our family collection. I love it that my dad could cover that cultural gulf – where it was so natural for Arab men to hold hands but so awkward for Englishmen – and look pretty cool and comfortable with it.

Next week

We’ll be back in the Algarve, where we have meetings with the Sensibles, our agent, our lawyer and a tax adviser. We also very much hope to meet up with First Friends, the people we stayed with when we first came to Portugal, and whom we’ve seen on every visit since.


First Friends’ dog: normal chair, very small canine

Week 6: The foundering of Nelson’s flagship

We have a number of things to do. We should probably draw up a list.

  • 1. Write a to-do list.

One of the decisions to be made is whether or not to become Portuguese residents, and we need to decide before we buy our house since it affects the purchase to a small degree. For Husband it’s quite straight forward: he will become a Portuguese resident. For me, it’s less so. I shall continue to earn my money in the UK. Where I am resident determines to whom I pay tax, and how much. This is a tight little bundle of ethical/economic/practical anxiety for me at the moment, something I need to unravel and straighten out. I find all matters related to tax a worry. I’ve been self-employed for decades and should be used to it by now, but the Inland Revenue has always cast a long shadow over my life. It’s not even the money; it’s the accounting for it. I do, of course, pay an accountant to do this for me. However, I have to supply him with all the information in the first place. Husband calls me an Angst-Hase, a worry rabbit, and this was indeed a large part of my problem with HMS Victory.

Our stay in Ravello

We have, as you know, just returned from holiday in Italy. We rented an apartment in Torello on the Amalfi Coast, 669 steps down from the beautiful town of Ravello. We were among lemon groves. One of the pleasures I most look forward to in the Algarve is having our own citrus trees.

Amalfi lemons

Amalfi lemons

The owners of the flat, who lived in the main part of the building, were very kind. They filled our kitchen with their own produce – lemons, olive oil, garlic – and the rest of the flat with flowers. The flowers were a piece of luck, their daughter’s wedding having taken place the day before. Another piece of luck was the trail of rice and sugared almonds that had been showered over the couple, which enabled us to find our way home through the maze of steep stepped paths linking houses, farms and town.

Our apartment’s balcony looked down over the lemon groves to the sea. Inside we had a small kitchen at one end of a good-sized hall; the kitchen had a sea view too (as did the loo – a loo with a view). At the other end of the hall was a large built-in wardrobe, and in between were a fireplace and two large wooden ships fixed to boards and bracketed to the walls. One was called the Bremen; the other, much larger, was HMS Victory.

When it came time to pack and leave, I decided to make use of this good space in the hallway. Husband was watching football in the bedroom anyway. I opened out my case and began to fill it. I rather like packing. First I managed to achieve a most satisfactory arrangement with a pair of shoes I had bought in Ravello. Their box fit precisely into the top left-hand side of the case, and a stack of freshly washed socks fit perfectly around the shoes within the box. It was most pleasing.

Shoes unpacked in London

Shoes unpacked in London

I straightened up to get the next items, when the pointy bit on the back of my skull came into unexpected contact with the base of Victory’s board. This gave me a small shock; it must have given Nelson a much greater one, for this impact was so ideally calibrated that it sprang the entire ship from its fixings and crashed it to the floor. There it lay, its masts broken, its rigging tangled. A lifeboat and various pieces of naval insignia were scattered across the tiles.

Husband appeared at the door to the bedroom. He came over and picked up the boat, cradling it in both hands. It was clearly not an easy fix. I decided to go at once to apologise to the owners. My Italian doesn’t stretch much further than saying sorry, so I invited the landlady into the flat to see for herself what I was sorry for. I hoped my face expressed what my tongue could not. At the same time I searched her face for signs of ‘that-old-thing-I’ve-wanted-to-get-rid-of-it-for-years’ but there were no such signs. She looked sad and shocked, like I felt. She said, ‘Pazienza, pazienza, pazienza.’ ‘It doesn’t matter.’ But it looked like it did. She took the ship away. She came back for the rest of the pieces, and left silently. I did not sleep much that night.

The following day was our departure and we went to pay the balance of our bill. The landlady, by this time, was much cheered up. Her husband would fix the boat, she said. It would take a while, but he would fix it. I was not to worry at all, and they certainly wouldn’t accept any money towards its repair.

Because I have a slightly superstitious frame of mind, I have chosen to see the Victory as a kind of lightning conductor, or rather a disaster conductor. Nelson took it on the chin, so that other disasters would not happen. The Angst-Hase is back on her feet.

Victory no more.

Victory no more

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