Ginny and Alex were off home in a couple of days. They were driving back to St Malo. The sound of banging cupboards rang down the stairs. Alex packed up the TT. Bron, Andy and Kenny were staying on for a few days. Both Ginny and Bron hated goodbyes. Ginny always had to leave as soon as she could. The build up to leaving was intolerable. They missed each other and lived too far apart to meet up more than every couple of months. Bron got ratty with Andy and Kenny and snapped at them. Ginny and Bron hugged and promised to meet up soon.
"Let's go camping soon," said Ginny, "We could go to Bo Peep." This was a campsite about halfway between where they lived. They were due a camping trip.
"From the sublime to the ridiculous!" laughed Bron. It usually rained when they went camping. Luckily Bron and Andy had a huge tent that doubled up as a living room for them all in the evening. They played cards and chess and drank a lot of red wine. It felt as though it kept out the cold, although Kenny had repeatedly explained that this was not the case as wine dilated your blood vessels, making you colder. They loved these peaceful evenings, putting the world to rights, laughing and joking. There was something about camping that made you feel really rested when you got home.
Alex and Ginny roared off in the TT, waving madly. Bron and Andy went back inside. Bron looked deflated. She was rubbish at goodbyes. There was not enough time at home to do anything. She wished yet again that they could afford for her to work part time. Then she could pop up to Cheshire for the odd weekend without being wiped out for the whole of the following week. It wasn't likely to happen though. Not unless she wrote a best-selling novel or something.
Dan and Nell sat in the shade by the pool, watching the swifts dive across the surface of the pool, snatching insects, or perhaps sips of water. The sky above was impossibly blue. Nell had been to Greece with her fiance. He was an artist and always took stuff to make drawings when they went on holiday. When he had bought navy blue paper and oil pastels to take Nell had thought the paper wouldn't work. But the sky in Greece really was navy blue. It was the same here. You could almost touch it.
Lucilia silently approached them, smiling. She touched Nell's face.
Nell looked puzzled. "Does she mean I look ill?"
Kenny looked up from his Nintendo, "she's asking if you're pregnant."
Nell and Dan looked at each other, open-mouthed. "I can't be, we've only just met!" hissed Nell. Dan burst out laughing. "I wasn't aware that not knowing someone for long was an effective method of birth control."
"So have you had sex then?" asked Kenny, "that's the only way you can get pregnant unless you have IVF which involves a complicated procedure. I told Miss Day that if she was going to have sex with her boyfriend she should make sure he used a condom. I told her that she didn't want children because they would ruin her life."
"What did she say?" laughed Dan.
"She said - 'thank you Kenny, I'll remember that.' Of course it might be someone else who made Nell pregnant. You could try and analyse Nell's knickers to see they contain any couch fibres...."
At this point Bron called Kenny over and through gritted teeth told him to have a swim before she threw him in herself.
* * *
Parvin stood looking out over the valley. All she could hear was birdsong. The smell of warm earth filled her nose. She was smoking far less than usual and she could tell her sense of smell was improving. Her jeans were tight where she was eating so well. The thought of going back to London and the rain, and the Tube, and her miserable lonely flat filled her with dread. From this gentle sunny place she could see how hollow her life had become. She had dreamed of writing brilliant software when she was at college; creating something that would add to the wellbeing of people. Instead she was helping huge corporations fleece vulnerable people who had gambling habits. Even though her mum and dad lived a few miles from her she hardly ever saw them. They didn't complain but she knew her mum in particular missed her. She would just have to make more of an effort to get over more, visit them for Sunday lunch or something. They would love Portugal. They had never got used to the miserable climate in England. It would be cool if they could sell the shop and buy a little restaurant out here.
* * *
Dan was ringing up his clients to tell them he was going to be away longer than he thought. He left Smiler's owner for last. One of the hardest things about being away was missing his favourite hound. Smiler gave so much love and positive energy. He hoped Kerry would find someone who loved Smiler as much as Dan did to take him for walks.
Most of his customers were fine about him being away. A lot of them worked at the Universities in Brighton so they were at home in the summer anyway. A few of the dogs were going into kennels while the owners went away to Tuscany or Florida. Smiler was one of the few dogs who didn't get a holiday at the kennels. He had a pet passport as he regularly went to Germany with Kerry when her work took her to army bases on the Rhine.
Dan dialled Kerry's number.
"Look, I am trying to pack. Leave me alone, you bastard!" The line went dead. Dan re-dialled, thinking he had a wrong number, although the voice had sounded like Kerry.
"I'm sorry, I thought you were someone else," she said, when Dan explained who he was. "My husband and I are getting divorced. Its all really horrible. He was shagging someone whose roof he fixed last year. Its been going on behind my back for ages. I was going to ring you to see if you would be able to help find a home for Smiler. I can't take him to the flat I'm renting and that shitty bastard never wanted a dog anyway."
Dan thought fast.
"I would love to have him myself. I rang you to tell you I was planning to stay a bit longer in Portugal. He can come out and join me." They made arrangements for Kerry to put Smiler on a plane to Faro where Dan would pick him up.
"I know he'll be happy with you - he loves you as much as he loves me!" Kerry said tearfully.
Dan felt great. Everything was working out. It struck him as odd that that the only thing he had been looking forward to about going back to England was seeing Beth and spending time with a lurcher with odd coloured eyes.
* * *
Nell threw up into the ditch. She had gone out to take pictures in the early morning light. Late afternoon and early morning were best. The shadows were more pronounced and the colours were not bleached out. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve and sat down in the road. She felt awful. Her breasts ached. She had heard you got muscle pains with food poisoning but breasts, as far as she knew, were not muscles. She thought again about the possibility that she could be pregnant. It was absurd. Before she had come to Portugal she had been a husk. Her periods had been all over the place. Dan was the first man who had got near her since she broke up with her fiance. And the only time they had made love was in the sea.
But her grandmother had conceived on her honeymoon. Her grandmother Flora was an amazing presence, a big woman with flaming red hair that she kept firmly pinned into a bun. Nell had been amazed to see it loose when her gran had a shoulder operation. With her hair loose Flora looked much smaller. It surrounded her on the hospital pillow like a fiery cloud. Her gran had been strangely embarrassed that Nell had seen it. It was almost as though it was an indulgence that she had been caught out in, like sneaking chocolates from the bottom layer when the only ones left on the top were strawberry creams. She had tried in vain to pull it under control with her good hand. Nell had asked he if she wanted it brushed and her gran had lain there, with her eyes shut, while Nell had gently brushed it and then plaited it into a long rope. When she had finished, and sat back, holding her gran's hand, Flora had opened her eyes.
"No-one has brushed my hair for me since I was a child. Thank you." Nell was struck again by how growing up seemed to deprive people of the nurturing that all humans needed. It was almost as though you were expected to develop a steel shell when you turned 18. Women especially had to be strong through whatever life had thrown at them. Flora was a case in point; she had met Nell's grandfather, Llewellyn, in South Africa where he was sent to try to recover from TB. Flora had a son, Ted, from her first husband, who had died. They had four more children, Nell's mum and her twin sister, her aunt Milly, and her uncle Evan. They came back to North Wales, where the Afrikaans-speaking Flora could not understand a word of Welsh and barely any English. Llewellyn had got slowly thinner and had died, leaving Flora broken-hearted, in a hostile wet place with five children under 10.
She had knuckled down, taking in sewing and raising chickens to supplement the National Assistance that she was forced to rely on. Nell's mum had retained a life-long fear of going to the post office, sparked by a childhood of having officials come round to the house and taking away anything that was not considered necessary. The neighbours had never taken to Flora, and took pleasure in reporting her if she sold a hen to a local family.
There was a genetic thing in the family about losing too many eggs each month. Her mum had been a non-identical twin and her uncle Evan had non-identical twin daughters. Flora's brothers had been twins. Nell's mother had felt being a twin was a curse. She had been truly nasty to her twin when they were children, although she had mellowed as she got older. They had been on holiday once with her aunt. The twins had written a book of poetry together, thoughtful pieces about identity and loss, strength and joy. Nell had found it oddly disturbing to read the poems. The idea that her mother had an inner life had not occurred to her before. The poem by her mother about sex made her blush, even though it was obvious her mother must have had sex at least once to produce Nell. She could not envisage her mother, with her sensible shoes and cardigans, lying bathed in sweat in a field.
Nell decided to buy a pregnancy testing kit.
* * *
Parvin needed a fix, not of tobacco but of the net. She would need to get a data card for her laptop if she lived out here. Then she could sit in the sun and work. There was something about the calmness of the place that made her thoughts run more smoothly. Parvin reckoned she could get through twice as much work here.
Jeff and Marcus were going to look at tiles and bathroom fittings in Monchique and she persuaded them to drop her at an internet cafe. Almost as soon as she got though the door she regretted it. These places ponged. She almost wished her sense of smell had not improved. She was surrounded by smelly backpackers uploading their snaps of huge fish and pale beaches. She bought a coffee and settled down at a terminal. It took her ages to get things together. She was simply no good with her left hand. She checked her e-mails. It was odd there was nothing from Giles. Maybe the wedding had wiped him out. He was not above snorting a line or two of coke at parties and he wasn't as young as he used to be. He lived on his nerves, drank too much and slept too little. The way he was had set the pattern for how his staff worked too; there was a macho pride in saying that you had only had 3 hours sleep and had drunk 25 espressos that morning. Some of her colleagues even used caffeine shower gel, although how it would keep you awake was something Parvin couldn't work out.
Next to her was a dark-haired man with huge square glasses. He was rattling away at the keyboard. Parvin watched his hands. He was entering code faster than she had ever seen. It was like someone typing in their mother tongue.
"so you write Java?"
"I'm a programmer too."
Partvin looked at the screen. "You need to close that tag - that's why its not working."
"These fucking foreign keyboards!" The guy grinned. "I'm Max."
"Parvin." They shook hands. Parvin was reminded of the Freemasons. They shook hands with their left hand.
"Let's go to a cafe - this place hums," said Parvin.
They talked in shorthand, the way that only people who get truly each other's drift can do. All over the place, jumping from dynamic recompilation to types of lettuce, to politics, to vodka. After half an hour Parvin wanted this intense man in her bed. She asked him where he was staying.
"I'm staying with my mum," he said, "she's a reflexologist in a health spa. The only trouble with the place is you can't smoke there. I have to go up the road and chain smoke to get my fix."
"Actually, once you've been here a while you find you smoke less," said Parvin, aware she sounded messianic. She added impulsively, "come for dinner at our hotel tonight?"
* * *
Nell watched as the blue line emerged. She was stunned. How on earth could this be happening? She remembered one of her friends saying that every funeral she went to had a pregnant woman there and that every family where there was a death usually had a birth within the next 12 months. It was part of the cycle of life and death. Mind you, this same friend had some pretty odd theories about other areas of life.
Nell wasn't ready for this. She was battered by the deaths of her parents; she had no emotional reserves. Although in a way perhaps she was more ready than she had ever been. Life had been turned upside down lately. And although she had only just met Dan she knew there was no man who would be a better father. Even if she and Dan did not stay the course she had no doubt that he would be devoted to the little one.
She told Dan over lunch. He stood up and yelled then picked her up and hugged her. People at the other tables looked round, then broke into smiles when they saw Dan twirling Nell round, narrowly missing a waiter carrying a tray of glasses.
"You darling! How brilliant! I love you! Will you marry me?" Nell sat down, straightening her clothes.
"I'd love to marry you but not now. Not until this little one is born, and we've gone through a couple of years of sleepless nights together. If we are still speaking by then I promise I will make an honest man of you!"
"You have a deal, Madam!" He picked up a ring of squid and put it over her ring finger. Nell ran for the loo to be sick.
* * *
Parvin leaned back and blew smoke in the air. The sheets were tangled round her legs but she couldn't be bothered to sort them out.
"Nothing beats a post-coital fag!" she said.
Max laughed, "except the bit before!"
“I'm not sure my mum would approve of this," said Parvin, "sex on our first date!"
"My mum would. She's been introducing me to what she thinks are suitable women for ages. I'm sure she thinks i'm gay. She'd be chuffed to bits that i'm having this sort of post-coital fag! How long are you here?"
"My flight back is on Sunday.." Parvin told him about the online betting software, and how she should have been somewhere else.
Max sat up. "Which company was it you were supposed to be going to?"
"Why?" Although Parvin was smitten she was a bit wary about giving too much away. The world of programming was mighty incestuous and she didn't want any more grief from Giles.
"You know the whole online betting industry is about to take a major nose-dive?"
"What do you mean?"
"The new legislation in the States is going to really cramp their style. There were all sorts of plans for offshore companies but the Christian fundamentalists have huge influence in both Congress and the Senate. Its pretty watertight. The rumour in Chicago is that internet gaming companies will be collapsing like ninepins."
Parvin was aware that Giles had been relying on this contract to keep afloat. The company had overstretched with the new offices. Giles had taken the view that you had to look the part to impress the punters but they were sailing very close to the wind. He had given the bank a personal guarantee on the company's overdraft so he was really exposed. She looked at Max.
"I need to make a call." she rolled out of bed, carefully shielding her broken arm.
There was no reply from either the office number or Giles's mobile. Parvin began to feel concerned. Normally Giles answered wherever he was, even in the jacuzzi. It was one of the annoying things about him - conversations were constantly interrupted by him grabbing his phone and bellowing "Shoot!" But it did mean you could always get hold of him.
"Lets have a look on the net" suggested Max. Parvin dug out her Blackberry. It was temperamental abroad so she didn't usually bother trying but she managed to fire it up. She checked the (name) website. There was an article about the problems with online gaming but nothing about Giles's company. She decided to send Giles an e-mail.
In her inbox was a message from a firm of accountants which she nearly deleted as spam. It told her coldly and clearly that the company had gone into administration and that salaries could not be paid until they had reconciled the books. It was unlikely that there would be sufficient funds to continue trading.
"Shit!" Parvin went pale and slumped back on the bed. "It was a tough job but at least it paid the rent. What the hell am I going to do now?" The glow of well-being she had felt moments ago had evaporated.
"You'll sort something out. In our business it is never hard to find something." Max sounded confident.
"Its a lot easier for guys. I have to get over the dumb girlie stereotype as well."
"Actually," said Max, "there's a project that I've been asked to take on but I simply don't have the time. Its for the University in Chicago. The fee is fixed at $20k so it is a bit of a minefield. Basically they want to develop some software that can spot plagiarism. If you did it quickly it would be lucrative but if it didn't come together because you hit a load of bugs it would be a nightmare. But I'd be happy to put your name forward - assuming you are up for it."
Parvin jumped up and down.
"My lease is nearly up in the crappy flat that I never have time to be in, I have no job, what on earth do I have to lose?"
"Well, if you put it like that! I'd have to pop over to have regular updates of course..."
* * *
Sandra gently touched Nell's cheek. "I can tell what you are about to say. You are going to have my grandchild."
"How on earth did you know?" asked Nell in amazement.
"You look different already. Its a gift I have - I've always had it. If only it could make me rich!" Sandra laughed. "I am so pleased. I know you will make Dan happy. You have been troubled but I feel it will come right for you now. It is lovely to have a new daughter. Will you stay here with us while you grow the baby?"
"I would love to!" Nell was moved to the core. She thought about how her mother might have received this news. She would have been full of advice as to how Nell must eat, and exercise, a lot of which would have been inaccurate. She would have been made to feel guilty. The one thing her mother would not have made her feel was special.
* * *
Dan waited as they unloaded the crate. Poor Smiler looked groggy. He had to be sedated to fly. The Greyhound heart was tricky - they had to have a special sedative to avoid problems.
Smiler perked up the minute he saw Dan. He wagged his big long tail so hard that Dan had to stand next to him to avoid him injuring it. Hounds regularly had injuries from wagging too hard. One person Dan knew had ended up with a house that looked like the shower scene from Psycho when her greyhound had cut his tail and carried on wagging it . He clipped on Smiler's lead and headed towards the Veterinary Inspector's office.