Andy stood by the baggage reclaim looking out for their luggage. Bron and Kenny stood looking around the concourse. Suddenly a large group of women burst into view.
“doodle, oodle, doodle, do, doodle, oddle, doodle do, da da da da da da…” they sang, joined together in a chain.
“Mum, “said Kenny, “what are those ladies doing?”
“Its called the birdy song, “explained Bron, “its sort of traditional on hen nights.”
“What, you mean a tradition like Morris dancing?” asked Kenny, “and what is a hen night? I can’t see any hens anywhere! Do they come out later?”
Bron embarked on an explanation of what a hen night was all about. One of the wonderful things about having an autistic kid was that you had to develop a whole range of explanations for things that really could not be explained. Bron often felt like an anthropologist in her own society, dissecting social interactions and trying to find meaning where there was none. They drove home from social events, conducting a post mortem on why it had not been appropriate to tell someone they had a fat stomach, or ask whether they had indulged in sex since they had their children. It had certainly made her think much more clearly about things than if she had a ‘normal’ child, whatever one of those was. Why on earth did women do the birdy song, with its mad accompanying dance, on hen nights? Why on earth did they still have hen nights? Wasn't it the 'normal' people who were a bit odd?
Andy swung their black canvas bags onto a trolley and they made their way out through customs in search of the car hire place.
Marcus smiled down at Jeff. He cut a fine figure in his colourful hat and bright woven jacket. He was tall and lean, unlike Jeff who was beginning to grow a bit of a paunch. They had both gone grey, but Jeff still sported a little quiff and a pony tail. At the counter in front of them an Irish man was slowly losing his temper.
“I paid for this booking online!”
“But sir,” said the woman behind the desk, “you are now wanting the vehicle for an additional day so we need another 40 euros.” She had black hair cut in a sharp fringe, and square black glasses, with thick lenses that made her eyes look huge.
“I am not standing for this!” roared the man and walked abruptly out through the automatic doors.
Marcus shrugged his shoulders at the woman. “I thought holidays were for relaxing.”
They drove out of the airport and round onto the A22. Palm trees and bougainvillea were everywhere. The buildings had a dusty look about them, and the soil was red and sandy. After about 10 minutes they pulled up outside the Hotel Monaco. It had a huge sign on its roof with the name on that could be seen for miles. The entrance hall was paved with marble and there were soft leather sofas. They checked in and went along to their room.
“Twin beds!” laughed Jeff.
“Well we wouldn’t want to shock the maid!” When they had first met they had spent most of their time in bed. Nowadays they had a comfortable familiarity with each other; they were more likely to snuggle down on the sofa with a cup of cocoa to watch Coronation Street than have a steamy night of passion.
Jeff pulled out the brochures they had collected of properties for sale. They all looked wonderful. It was going to be hard to decide.
The woman behind the desk looked as though she had been employed solely because she was a good advertisement for the place. She had gleaming shoulder length hair, dark blond with lighter streaks in it, a light tan and shining clear brown eyes. Her white short-sleeved coat and white clogs were pristine.
“Hello!” she smiled at Nell, “welcome to Monchique!”
She took Nell’s bag and glided along a shady corridor, throwing open the door to a room which looked out onto a courtyard with flowers, green plants and a gentle fountain. the furniture was made from pale wood and the bed was covered in a cream linen bedspread. On a little table by the window was a vase of cream coloured freesias. Nell felt her breath slowing just from the atmosphere of the place.
“You have missed dinner but there is plenty of salad and bread and cheese left,” the woman said, “come and find me when you have settled in.” With a smile she softly closed the door.
Nell sat on the bed. She could tell this place was going to do her good. She could hear the fountain gently babbling. The scent of the fresias wafted in the air. Nell marvelled at the lack of traffic noise. At home it was constant; even at night you could hear a quiet rumble.
After a few minutes she bent down and unzipped her bag. On top of her clothes was something she did not remember packing and indeed did not recognise – a grey folder containing a wad of handwritten notes and various documents. Nell lifted it out and beneath it saw that the clothes were not hers either. In her tired state it took her a while to understand that she had picked up someone else’s bag. She felt a huge relief that her cameras and lenses were in her hand luggage. She would just have to take a run back to the airport tomorrow and try to sort it out.
Dan jumped out of the taxi and looked around. Benagil was beautiful. It had a little cobbled street with blindingly white houses and apartments. At the bottom was a panoramic view of the sea. Dan looked around for the bakery. He located it by the smell of fresh bread. The door chimed as he went in. A small dark man with thick, dark grey, crinkly hair and a fine handlebar moustache was wiping the shelves.
“Pesaroso - nós somos closed." Seeing Dan's puzzled expression he tried English.
"Sorry, we are closed now”.
“I have booked a room, “ explained Dan. “ Ahhhh! come in!” said the man, opening his arms wide in a gesture of welcome and introducing himself as Paulo.
The room was basic but spotlessly clean. There was a blue gingham curtain at the window. Dan put down his bag and went downstairs.
“Where can I pick up a bite to eat?” he asked Paulo.
“You must eat with us!” cried a stocky woman, coming in through a bead curtain at the back of the shop. “I am Cacilda.” She ushered Dan into a crowded room, filled with dark carved wooden furniture. On the walls were displayed brown and bright blue pottery, and every surface had family photographs on it. The meal was a fabulous fish stew. Dan could feel it doing him good. His friend Ricardo, who was from Barbados, swore that fish was ‘brain food’. It had certainly worked for Ricardo. Dan mopped up the last bits with some bread which was so tasty it did not need butter.
“So you are here to find your folks?” said Paulo.
“That’s right,” said Dan , "I was adopted when I was a baby and it is only recently that I decided to find my roots.” He always felt slightly embarrassed when he told people he was adopted, as though it was somehow his fault.
“If there is anything we can do to help, let us know” said Cacilda, “My sister works at the Camara Municipal, the Town Hall. She will know where to access any records you need.”
Later that night, after a stroll round the town and a beer, Dan sat down on his bed and opened his bag to have a look at his notes. In the bag was a white linen dress.
“Shit!” he said. It was obvious that he had someone else’s bag. All his notes were in his bag - it had taken ages to get it all together.
That night Dan had disturbing dreams. he was running after a bus and each time he caught up with it it sped off. Then he was in a huge office block, but couldn’t find the place he was supposed to be heading for. People kept rushing past him carrying armfuls of files. Then he opened a door and was about to walk through when he saw there was nothing on the other side. He woke with a start, the pillow wet through. He lay on his back and tried to breathe slowly. The gingham curtains moved slowly in the breeze. as they parted he could see the full moon.
"I love this car!” said Kenny. They had booked a Corsa but been given a brand new Clio. “I’m going to get one of these when I’m older!” They bowled along the concrete road towards Loule. Ahead was a traffic queue.
“Rats!” said Bron, “I just want to get there now!” She idly flicked through the channels on the radio as they inched forwards. There seemed to be a choice of cheesy pop or rap. She left it on a channel with a song about umbrellas which seemed a bit incongruous in the sunshine. Eventually they cleared the traffic and were on the motorway. Cars kept screaming up behind them as though they weren’t there.
“Bastard!” said Andy, “BMW drivers the world over seem to think they own the road!”
“Are you going to pull off his head and shit down his neck|?” asked Kenny.
“No!” said Andy, “and for Christ’s sake don’t say that at school!”
‘Don’t say that at school’ was a bit of a theme. Kenny went to a special school and was picked up every day by a taxi driven by a man called Dave who liked Queen and collected air fresheners. Kenny was forever coming home with reports of things he had said at school and the effect on the teachers. One particularly memorable one was when Bron had taken Kenny to the housewarming of one of her mates from work. The hosts were lesbians and so were many of the guests. The following day, when Bron asked him about his day, Kenny said ”Miss Day didn’t believe me about the party!” When Bron asked him what he meant Kenny said, “When I told her I went to a party where there were swearing lesbians taking their clothes off, Miss Day said ‘is this true Kenny, or it one of your stories?’" On another occasion he came home saying he had been thrown out of class for telling the teacher she had OCD. Kenny was nothing if not forthright.
They finally pulled up at the villa where they were staying. Andy was an accomplished map-reader and usually navigated while Bron drove. It was a system that worked: Bron was a nervous passenger and in any event usually had the map upside down. At home she was in the habit of ringing Andy to ask him which way to go when she was driving in unfamiliar places. She would even ring from the supermarket to ask where the tuna was. For someone who could get a court order within 24 hours to close down a crack house she could be remarkably incompetent.
The TT was already parked on the drive. Ginny and Alex came out beaming.
“Lovely to see you!” Bron and Ginny hugged; Ginny didn't go in for silly air kisses - she gave Bron a proper bear hug.
“We have been so looking forward to seeing you guys!” Bron said. Alex and Andy shook hands and they all went into the villa. It was quite beautiful, bougainvillea and pelargoniums in the garden, strange cactuses and best of all a clear blue swimming pool.
“Its paradise!” shrieked Kenny, “this is the best holiday of my life!”
After they had unpacked they had a swim. Bron floated on her back looking at the clouds. She could feel her pulse slowing.
Later they sat down by the pool for a beer. Ginny and Alex told them about their journey down through France, stopping in Lamballe, Toulouse, over the Pyrenees to Pamplona and then on to Madrid. The last leg had brought them to Lagoa, the nearest town to the villa. They had stocked up on basics – beer, wine, milk, , tea bags, bread and cheese. The boot in the TT was too small for much so the plan was to go down to the supermarket in the morning in the Clio.
“570 for 7 declared and 114 for 7”, said Andy, having found the cricket news on the TV.
“Wow” said Ginny and Alex in unison.
“I hate cricket,” said Bron, “there are too many numbers in it!” Bron had become a lawyer in the misapprehension that there would be no maths involved. her stepmother, who had brought her up, was Polish. The Poles had a saying that every family should have a lawyer, a doctor and a priest. "You'll have to do law, " she had said, "there's no maths in that!" In fact Bron had had to plug away every day practicing her accounts to get through the solicitors finals course. She had not needed accounts much since; when she had her own practice she had employed an old friend who she trusted, as a cashier. Now she worked for a local authority there was even less need for maths as there were no accounts to mess up. As for the household finances, Bron operated on a system of running up huge bills on the credit card and then re-mortgaging the house to pay them off. If she had been better at maths she could have written a bestseller on economics.
“There he is!” shrieked Frances, spotting her father across the customs hall. Molly broke out in a smile – travelling with the kids on her own could not be described as relaxing. Frances in particular had a habit of wandering off the minute Molly closed her eyes. There had been some scary times in the past when men had been far too friendly to Frances, spotting immediately her trusting nature. It made Molly’s flesh creep just thinking about it. They ran to Jack and hugged him hard.
“Missed you!” said Molly.
“I made a friend on the plane!” said Frances “she’s called Nell!”
“How did you meet?” asked Jack.
“I was stroking her fluffy jumper and she turned round and smiled at me,” explained Frances.
“You’re a worry, Frannie!” said Molly fondly.
“The van was playing up so I had to stop and fiddle with it,” said Jack, “the spare battery isn't charging. We’ll have to get it checked over while we’re here.” Jack was a fiddler. He loved nothing so much as tinkering with machines, computers, anything that was logical and understandable. They had a room at home full of computers; the whole family were netheads. They kept in touch with family and friends around the world, looked up stuff for homework, played games, shopped and everything else. They had no internet connection in the van but Jack had rigged up his laptop so you could use the net with a mobile phone It cost a fortune so they only used it for necessities. It felt very weird but Jack had noticed they all talked to each other more and the kids argued less. They made their way to the bus which took them to where Jack had parked the van.
“Back on the open road!” cried Billy, bubbling over with enthusiasm. Billy took life by the horns and threw himself into things wholeheartedly. He was forever taking things up only to drop them once they had bought the gear. But it was hard to be cross with him for long. There was something vulnerable about the smart humour and rapid delivery, which made him breathless when he was nervous. He found it hard to keep friends and got bullied at school. Of all of them, he was the happiest to be going back to New Zealand.
They had decided to make for Lagoa where they could get the van checked over. Jack had looked on the net and found a little auto electrical specialist called (name). After Portugal they planned to go back up through Spain to Granada and then up to (places). It was the trip of a lifetime for the kids. Molly had no qualms in keeping them out of school for 3 months. This was far more educational than being squashed into round holes when both her children were quite clearly square pegs.
The next day dawned clear and blue. Nell felt much better for a decent night’s sleep in the nurturing atmosphere of the health spa. After a breakfast of yoghurt, honey and fruit, she made her way to the reception desk. It appeared that she could get a lift to the airport in the minibus that went to pick up guests. She put the folder back in the holdall, but then took it out again. It would help to try to find who the owner was. There was a wadge of paperwork, much of it in the name of Dan Williams. He seemed to be 33, the same age as Nell, and to come from the UK.
Nell zipped it up and swung it off the bed. She felt better than she had for weeks. Luckily she had bought some new knickers at the airport while she was killing time waiting for her flight. In the minibus she settled down to watch the countryside flash past the window. The red soil glowed and there was a riot of colour; purple bougainvillea, scarlet pelargoniums, bright blue gentians. There were ancient olive trees and yuccas, prickly pears and figs. Nell breathed in the air – a mixture of diesel and warm herbs. After about an hour she climbed down at the airport. She could not believe how much better she felt compared to last night. Her limbs felt warm and supple. Last night she had felt she might snap.
The woman at the information desk was tiny, even compared to Nell. She had wavy black hair and an intelligent smile. Once Nell had explained what had happened the woman sighed ruefully.
“you would not believe how often this happens! I suppose people are tired after their flights and just want to have a shower and relax.” She took the details of where Nell was staying.
“I will just check our lost property to see if your bag has turned up.” She disappeared for what seemed like an age. Nell was beginning to lose hope of ever seeing her stuff again when the woman heaved Nell's bag up onto the counter. It seemed almost as big as she was.
“It was brought in first thing by a young man,” she explained, “he has offered a reward to whoever finds his bag.”
“I don’t want a reward,“ said Nell, “I’m just glad to get mine back and I’m pleased to be able to return this one.”
“He is trying to find family members, “explained the woman, “all his documents are in here.” She patted the bag and Nell recalled the grey folder.
“Well, tell him good luck,” she said, acutely aware that she no longer had any close relatives, “family is important.”