Ginny and Alex piled into the Clio with Andy, Bron and Kenny and headed off to the supermarket.
“I love supermarkets abroad, “ said Bron, “all those brilliant pans and kitchen equipment.”
“Don’t forget we are going back on the plane,“ cautioned Andy, recalling a holiday where they had tried, unsuccessfully, to cram a paella pan into the overhead locker.
“I can see my beard” said Andy, as the crossed the car park ”its blowing in the wind – its quite biblical! will you give it a trim for me?” just as Bron was about to protest that she was on holiday Kenny piped up,
“seh feh mal barbe! - my beard is injured! see, I knew it would come in handy!”
They went round the shop, marvelling at the fish and cheeses and how cheap everything was. Bron’s shopping technique always made Andy anxious. She whizzed haphazardly round the shop with no method at all, buying things that caught her eye. Andy made lists and went up and down each aisle in turn. When he was particularly anxious he made lists that followed the layout of the shop. Bron would occasionally add something to one of Andy’s lists, in her huge scrawl, at an angle and nowhere near its place in the shop. Andy would surreptitiously write the list out again. When Bron went shopping without him she would often phone up from the shop,
“Where’s the tuna? have we got any sugar?” She had a sort of template of what she should buy which varied from month to month. This led to large gluts of things like spaghetti and brown sugar. Andy found this quite endearing at times, at other times it was exasperating. You could have enough spaghetti.
Parvin had spent half the morning on the phone trying to get a flight home. She had planned on being in Montenegro for at least a week so had booked a return flight in 10 days time. All the flights before then were full. She was worried that if she didn’t show her face at work soon they would have cleared her desk. She decided to walk into town and see if she could find a travel agent. Although the hotel had internet access in the lobby, and indeed in theory her Blackberry could pick up the net, she was chastened by her previous efforts and thought she would be better off relying on a real person. The irony of the whole fiasco was not lost on her.
As she walked across the gleaming marble of the lobby towards the steps down to the double doors, her Blackberry went off. She scrabbled in her bag for it. The next thing she knew she had gone head first down the short flight of steps and was face down at the bottom with an agonising pain in her right hand.
“You must have tried to break your fall” said an English voice. Parvin winced and turned over. Looking down at her was a man in a brightly coloured hat.
“Can you sit up?” The reception clerk came rushing over from behind his desk.
“Do you think its broken?” asked the man with the hat. “We’d better run you down to the hospital to get it x-rayed. It doesn’t look too clever.” He disappeared and came back almost immediately with an shorter man with a pony tail.
“Its just out the front” he said. Parvin was in a daze. She had no idea who these guys were but they seemed nice. She had no real option anyway. After a blurry ride through streets of brightly painted houses and scruffy shops they arrived at the hospital. It was a modern building. Architecturally it would have been more at home in the former Eastern Bloc, but it was clean and bright. The young doctor took one look at Parvin’s wrist.
“It’s a Smith’s fracture, typical of a fall where you put your hand out to save yourself. We’ll get it x-rayed to make sure it doesn’t need manipulation and then get you plastered up.” Parvin’s heart sank. Her right hand was her mouse hand and was also the one she used for the number pad on the keyboard. This was catastrophic on top of everything else.
As they waited for the X-ray the Englishmen introduced themselves as Jeff and Marcus and told her about their plans to buy a place. She warmed to them – being around people who were so at home with each other and still so obviously in love cheered her up a bit.
She thought of her mother and father. They had adjusted to life in England with dignity and humour when they had to leave Iran in 1979 and start all over again. Parvin had very little knowledge of Iran apart from what her parents had told her. She had been born a couple of years after her parents had got their shop in North London. In Iran her father had been an engineer and her mother a teacher but their qualifications had not been valid in the UK. Her father, Massoud, had worked long hours as a taxi driver, going round London in a yellow Datsun being patronised by people who thought they were better than him. It had taken a couple of years for him to save up the deposit for a newsagents in Newington Green. her mother, Halleh, was a woman who knew the meaning of hard work. She got up in the very early hours to take in the papers and sort out the paper boys. It was often gone midnight when they went to bed. They had wanted more for Parvin and had scraped and saved to send her to college. She had worked her guts out at Birmingham university, determined to make them proud. Now it all looked like falling to bits over a couple of stupid mistakes. She realised with a start that tears were pouring down her face.
“Must be the shock” said Jeff. “once we are out of here you must have a bite to eat with us.”
“I can’t impose on you any more,” said Parvin, half-heartedly, realising someone would have to cut up her food.
“We insist!” said Marcus.
As the doctor had said, Parvin’s wrist was fractured in a number of places. She was plastered up very quickly and discharged with some painkillers and a letter to her doctor at home.
“The hotel restaurant is closed for building work,” said Jeff, “so we’ll find somewhere local.” They pulled up outside a modern marble building with a menu outside.
“This looks good!” said Marcus. Inside the restaurant was dark, with crisp white linen tablecloths. The waiters were efficient and friendly. Jeff ordered some wine.
“Planalto,” he said, “we’ve had this before – its nice and crisp.”
“Should I be drinking with the painkillers?” Parvin mused.
“Of course!” said Marcus, “it will make them work better!” They told her about their work as they were brought buttery pastries filled with crab, clams in coriander, prawn cocktail in a huge conch shell, razor clams, marinated octopus, sweet circles of carrots in garlicky oil. The main course was wonderful grilled fish. Parvin ate more than she had eaten for a long time. The artists were such good company she felt she had known them for years. She told them about how she had ended up in the wrong country, about how she could not get a flight back, and how it was all now compounded by the broken wrist which meant there was very little point in her going back to work as she could not use a mouse or a keyboard.
Marcus lit Parvin's cigarette for her as the waiter cleared the rest of the table.
“Well, dear, you will just have to tag along with us on our jaunts to look at houses!” Parvin thought he was joking but Jeff explained that they needed someone to keep a sense of perspective as they were both prone to being impulsive. Something, maybe the wine, or the tiredness, or simply good judgement, made Parvin agree.
- o -
Nell pulled off her clothes and stepped into the shower. She felt dusty but content. The smell of lavender floated up into her nostrils; it always made her relax. Whether it was the effect of aromatherapy or just that people had always told her that lavender was relaxing, she never knew.
She towelled herself off and put on fresh clothes from her bag. There was something about holiday clothes; even if you took old favourites you ironed them and put them in carefully and they just felt better. She put on her white linen dress and slid her feet into her Birkenstocks. It was almost time for lunch. She wandered out into the courtyard and dipped her hand into the fountain. There were tiny golden fish and they nibbled her fingers, tickling her. A large leathery green plant shone with droplets from the fountain. There was a wonderful sense of peace about this place.
As Nell went along to lunch, the glowing blond woman came up to her.
“Someone left this for you” she said, handing over an envelope. Nell was puzzled. No-one knew she was here. She tore it open. It was a card with a picture of a Dalmatian on. Inside there was a message “Thank you so much for getting my bag back to me. I’d like to buy you lunch to say thank you. Dan.” Underneath was a mobile phone number.
Nell thought about it as she munched her salad. She remembered the resolution she had made to take what life offered. She was fascinated about this man who was finding his family. Hers had all gone, but his was yet to reveal itself. Back in her room Nell dug out her phone and sent a text message to the number on the card. “hi Dan, would love to meet up, Nell”.
Nell settled down with a book about the wild flowers of Portugal, deciding where to start taking pictures. What she had seen so far had filled her with enthusiasm. As well as flowers and trees there were ruined buildings and gnarled trees. Nell was good at black and white shots of subjects with texture. She decided to try her old Pentax Spotmatic for the pictures of the buildings and trees and her Nikon D70 for the flowers. The sky was so blue she decided to use a red filter on the black and white film shots to bring out the contrast.
A noise like a herd of sheep rang out. For a moment Nell was puzzled. It was so long since she had received a text from anyone she had forgotten that her phone bleated at her. She opened it up. “How about tomorrow at Litoral in Benagil? Dan.” Nell looked at her map. She would need to get a taxi but she could afford taxis now. “sounds good to me. about 1.ish?” she sent back. “see you there, Dan.” came back, almost immediately.
- o -
“This is so boring!” sighed Billy, as they waited in the garage, “can we go for a wander?” They had spent the night in the van in a quiet valley where all they could hear was the sound of crickets, and a bird that sounded like someone rattling away at a keyboard, which made them a little homesick.
“Not yet” said Molly. “it won’t be long.”
Jack came back into view. He looked incandescent.
“They have to keep it in and order some brushes for the alternator!” (check details) he growled. “they say we can sleep in it in their car park but we can’t go anywhere until its sorted.” Molly sighed. Nothing ever went smoothly. but at least they were together. They decided they would take the kids to the local park and sit in the shade with a cool drink. The park was triangular and surrounded by orange trees. Molly picked an orange and began to peel it.
“Are you allowed to do that?” asked Jack, getting out his camera. He loved taking macro shots of insects and found plenty to occupy him in the orange trees. An army of ants was moving eggs across the concrete to a new home. Jack knelt down and pointed the camera at them.
- o -
After lunch Nell sat by the fountain and read her book. It was a novel about a choir. She had booked her first reflexology treatment at the spa for later in the afternoon. It was with a woman called Bibi. At 3.30 she went along to the desk and was shown into a treatment room. The walls were custard yellow and the curtains were Hessian. On the mantelpiece were pieces of driftwood and stones worn by the sea. Scented candles were burning and soft music rippled.
Bibi was a Californian woman of about 50. She was short and trim with bright blue eyes and thick dark brown hair. She moved like a dancer. She showed Nell to a chair carved from a single piece of wood in the shape of a cupped hand. After taking a short medical history she said,
“Pop off your shoes and make yourself comfortable on the couch. ” She showed Nell how to recline it to suit her. Nell wriggled down into the couch and stretched her toes as Bibi mixed aromatic oils in a small glass pot.
“Have you had reflexology before?”
“No, I’m looking forward to it.”
Bibi started to work oil into her hands and then began on Nell’s feet. She moved over every inch. As she pressed below Nell's ankle Nell felt a sharp pain.
“Have you had problems with an ovary?” Nell had not mentioned anything about having had an ovarian cyst 10 years previously.
As Bibi bent over her feet Nell felt tears spring out of her eyes. They did not trickle down, they seemed to squirt like a water pistol. She did not feel sad as such but the tears just fell and would not stop.
“I’m sorry,” said Nell, “I don’t know what this is about. I lost my parents not long ago but I wasn’t feeling sad just then. My eyes just suddenly let rip!”
“Its very common, “reassured Bibi, “its to do with the treatment releasing energy that has got stuck. No-one really understands it but it seems to work!”
She finished the treatment by holding gently to Nell’s big toes for a short while, then placing her palms together.
“Thank you!” said Nell, “I feel amazing!” It was true, she felt younger and a little bit healed. She could not stop yawning and she was really thirsty.
“I expected it to be relaxing but it seems to have done more than that!” She made arrangements for another treatment the following day.
- o -
After shopping everyone was hot and grumpy. The Intermarche was full of British tourists and it had made the adults embarrassed to be British. A scrawny wrinkled Yorkshire woman had been complaining in a loud voice that there was no Crackerbarrel cheese. Andy alone enjoyed himself. They often joked that he was an experienced shopper. While Bron would regularly come home with only one of items that were 'Buy One, Get One Free', Andy had a Tesco Clubcard and actually used the vouchers.
"I think they have a better attitude to foil," he said, "in England they put the tape that stops it unrolling on the wrong way round so that when you try to open it it takes loads of foil with it. I must remember to write to them about it."
"Just like Granddad and the marmalade bits", piped up Kenny. Bron's dad was a curmudgeonly old North Walian who had black eyebrows even though he had white hair. He regularly wrote to companies about defects in their products. The marmalade letter, prompted by a jar where all the bits had sunk to the bottom, had resulted in a coupon for a free jar of Frank Cooper Vintage Thick Cut Marmalade. Granddad had seen this as a victory of the little man over corporate greed. In the 1960s he had been a trade union rep in the car industry and for a while had flirted with Communism. Now he confined his political efforts to cutting remarks about "that shitbag Bush" in e-mails to Bron.
They pulled up by a little square and took bottles of water out of the shopping bags. They found a bench in the shade. After a little while Bron became aware of someone standing over them.
“Hi there” said a friendly antipodean voice, “aren’t you the folks who helped me out in Lamballe?” Bron and Andy jumped, thinking this was someone on the make. Ginny and Alex stood up and shook the outstretched hand.
“Hi! So you made it then?”
“Yeah, but they need to keep the van in for a day or so. They said we can sleep in it round the back of the garage.” Alex introduced everyone and explained how Jack and his family were travelling round Europe.
“You must come and stay with us at the villa!” Ginny said – “its huge!” Kenny looked slightly less keen at this unexpected turn of events.
“But where will they sleep?” he stage-whispered to Bron.
“They can have the big bedroom at the back and the sofabed,” said Bron.
“But didn't he say they have kids!” hissed Kenny, in the way you might say they had chicken pox.
“It’s a big enough villa and its only for a day or two. “ said Andy firmly, "get over it!"
They saw a woman and two children coming round the corner. Bron realised it was the curly-haired woman from the plane.
“Hi!” she said, getting up, “what a small world!”
“I’ve got syphilis!” said Frances to Kenny.
“Well I’ll make sure I don’t have sex with you then!” said Kenny sharply. Molly explained about the furry microbes.
“How weird!” said Kenny.
“I’ve got a burping pineapple too!” said Frances.
“Have you?” asked Kenny, visibly brightening, “so have I! I’m going to get Larry the lemon next!”
“Do you like computer games?” asked Billy.
“Yeah, love them! I’ve got Sims 2! I’ve also got it on my DS!” It was obvious things were going to be ok with the kids.
Andy drove Bron, Kenny, and Ginny up to the villa and then went back into town for the others.
“Are you sure we won’t be imposing?” asked Molly.
“no!” Andy reassured her, "the kids seem to get on fine. That’s the main thing – Kenny’s autistic and it can be a bit hit and miss!”
“so is Frances, and possibly Billy also!” said Molly. “its a relief not to have to explain all their funny little ways - you guys will have been there before!”
- o -
Over breakfast by the pool, Jeff showed Parvin the details of properties that they were interested in. There seemed to be hundreds.
“They all look gorgeous!” she said, thinking of her miserable flat. She made a mental note to take a trip to Ikea when she got home and get some bits and bobs to brighten it up. She was feeling a lot cheerier. She had received an e-mail from Giles saying that Will had gone out to Montenegro and that she might as well just chill given she would be useless at work anyway. 'Come back with a spring in your step and some good ideas!' Giles had signed off. One thing about Giles, although he could be tough and sharp, it was soon over. Parvin supposed that he still needed her at the moment, although she was under no illusions that she was dispensable, should she cease to offer what the company needed. It was a cut-throat business she was in. Most of British industry seemed like that. No-one seemed to have any security in their job these days.
Marcus came back from the buffet balancing 3 glasses of orange juice. “So which do you think we should start with?”
“I have no idea!” said Parvin. “what are you looking for?”
“Away from other properties, either has a pool or space to put one, views, on a hill so we get the breeze, room for us both to work…you know, everything!”
“How about we throw out any that don’t have all that for starters?”
“We’ve already done that!” said Jeff. “this is the shortlist!”
“Well, how about we narrow it down into geographical areas,” suggested Parvin. She was beginning to enjoy the company of the artists now the pain in her wrist was going off a bit. “We could go to one area each day – that would save too much driving around.”
“I knew she would be worth her weight in gold! the analytical mind – its just what was needed.” said Marcus, passing round coffees.
- o -
Nell got to Benagil early. She wandered around, taking a few pictures, including some cliché shots of the sea through yellow railings of concentric squares. She could not get out of the habit of taking shots that she could sell. Once when she was on holiday with a photographer friend she knew from college, he had taken a shot of a collapsing shed with some washing on a line in the foreground. He had said “there, that will pay for my holiday!” Nell knew that there was good money to be made in postcards and framed photos for tourists but she had never felt comfortable with it. There was something odd about people wanting idealised images that bore no resemblance to what life was about.
As she walked up the steep hill to the restaurant Nell felt a bit nervous. She had no idea what kind of person Dan was. She comforted herself with the thought that it was busy and public and that if he was off his head she didn’t need to see him again. It was chilly in the wind. She had worn her linen dress as it was so hot when she left the spa but it was breezy on the hill. A smiling man with a shiny bald head and a white apron welcomed her.
“I’m meeting someone but I don’t know what he looks like,“ Nell explained. The man looked at her in thinly disguised puzzlement.
“Do you know his name?” he asked in a thick Portuguese accent.
“Dan.” Nell said, feeling her courage beginning to desert her. Just then a tall lean figure strode up behind her.
“Are you Nell?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer said “I’m Dan!”
“Hi!” said Nell, relieved that her discomfiture was cut short, “how did you know who I was?”
“I recognised your dress!” smiled Dan. The waiter looked even more puzzled.
“A table for two, please,” said Dan,
“Do you want inside or outside?” asked the waiter, on firmer ground now.
“Lets sit outside” said Nell, feeling warmer out of the breeze.
The waiter settled them down at the gleaming aluminium table and brought out a paper table cloth which he clipped it to the table to stop it blowing away.
“Drinks?” he raised an eyebrow, “orange, water, beer, wine?”
“Shall we have wine?” said Dan. Nell warmed to him. He had an easy way about him. He had cheerful brown eyes and curly dark brown hair which seemed to have a will of its own. He reminded her of nothing so much as a dark brown Afghan Hound. “Yes, white please,” she said. The waiter brought a bottle covered in beads of condensation and two glasses with an icy sheen from the freezer. They ordered their lunch – plaice for Nell and sea bass for Dan.
“So you’re a photographer?” asked Dan.
“How did you know that?” Nell was amazed.
“Something to do with the quantity of black and white film in your bag!” he said, then added hastily “I didn’t pry, I was just trying to find a name and address.”
“And you're researching your family tree?” said Nell, “I saw the folder with all the birth certificates."
“Not just my family tree, I’m adopted and I am trying to trace my birth family. My adoptive mother died recently and I felt it would be hurtful to her to try to trace them before now.” As he said this he watched Nell carefully. Dan had found that people’s reaction to this was telling.
“I’ve just lost both my parents,” said Nell, quietly, “it’s a funny feeling when you are the oldest member of your family. I can see why you would want to find your other folks now.”
“You'd be amazed how many people try to put me off!” he said. "they seem to think that the fact I might find I am the bastard son of a prostitute would be a bad outcome. I just want to know who I am, not discover I am a millionaire. In fact that would come with its own set of problems…sorry, I’m ranting on a bit.”
“Not at all, it must be hard enough getting your head round all this without people being unsupportive.” said Nell. She liked this man. He felt real.
Their food arrived and they talked about their star signs. Dan said he was a typical Aries. Nell supposed she was a less typical Capricorn. Nell found herself telling Dan about her mother and how she had never seemed comfortable having a daughter. Nell had spent a lot of her life trying to gain her mother's approval. Her mother had been a twin and Nell had formed a theory that she had spent her whole life trying to escape being the same as someone else. Maybe if Nell had been a boy things might have been different.