Jack slammed shut his mobile phone.
“ I cannot believe it!” he said, “ they need a part for the alternator! It won't be ready until Thursday!”
“Don’t worry, Jacko,” said Molly, “we're having a lovely time here. We can miss out travelling up through Eastern France and just head straight back up to Calais. That will give us more time to sit by the pool!”
“I don’t think your heart is in the life on the road!” Jack laughed.
Andy and Bron went down into the town. They didn't often get away on their own. They found a shady spot to park the car and climbed out. Across the road was a tall concrete water tower upon which a pair of storks had built a huge, ungainly nest. They wandered round to the market, through cobbled streets which shone in the sun. Outside stood a group of men, smoking and laughing. A dog cocked its leg on a 3 wheeler scooter that was parked by the curb with a huge basket of tomatoes in the back.
Inside the market was dark and cool; a toothless old woman sat knitting behind a stall piled high with loaves of bread. On the marble slabs were amazing fish; leopard skin eels, sardines that looked like they were still alive, huge conger eels with eyes like luminous saucers, massive ugly stone bass. The man selling them wore a delicate knitted cardigan and a blue tartan shirt. He gutted a huge fish using a very sharp knife with astonishing speed. They bought a kilo of sardines and a kilo of plum tomatoes. Bron gave the tomato man 4 euros and he threw his head back and laughed.
“He only wanted 40 cents” chuckled Andy. Bron’s financial aptitude was legendary. She persuaded the fish man to pose for a photograph and they wandered out into the sun. Dogs mooched around in the gutters; one lay asleep in a tiny patch of shade. The sun was already hot even at this early hour. The town was a funny mixture of old and new; huge cranes towered over tiny, brightly-painted houses. Through empty windows they could see derilict sites where the rooves of houses had fallen in. A woman came out of her house and shook out a rug; the dust floated lazily down in the still air. Round the corner they came across a tall building with hundreds of housemartins nesting under the eves. The nests looked like coconuts.
On the way back to the villa, they saw a herd of sheep and goats with a man in a blue shirt watching over them. Bron jammed on the brakes and swung into a layby.and they walked back to take photos. The man was throwing pebbles at the goats that were trying to get on the road. Tall white birds sat on the backs of the sheep, picking out bugs. Bron took photos of the sheep. She didn’t believe in taking them of people unless they were agreeable and this man certainly wasn’t keen; he hid behind a bush until they left.
“I wonder if he is maybe not allowed to let them graze there,” said Andy, “he might have thought we were agents or from the Council or something”
“I suppose that sort of farming is getting harder and harder” said Bron, “there is less and less land with all the villas being built. It must he hard to scratch a living like that man. I doubt his son will follow in his footsteps.”
They drove back to the villa, both thinking of what Kenny might do when he grew up. It was probably harder for someone like him to grow up in an industrialised society rather than an agricultural one but it also offered a lot more advantages. If they could just get him through childhood in one piece things would be easier for him.
- o -
Nell had borrowed the car again. She picked up Dan and they drove to the address in Lagoa that they had found in the Rergister of Electors. It was a concrete block of flats, dusty and uncared for. They sat outside, watching people coming in and out. A boy of about 15 came out wearing a rucksack, baggy trousers and trainers. He walked off towards the town. Not long afterwards a woman came down the concrete steps. She was taller than a lot of Portuguese women, and very slim. She looked about 45 and had long dark curly hair, pulled back tightly in a pony tail. She was dressed in a red shirt and black trousers, obviously a uniform.
She walked in the same direction as the boy.
“I think this might be her!” said Dan, excitedly. There was something about her that struck him as familiar.
“If you like we can follow her.” said Nell. She started the car and they followed the woman. They lost her when she turned up a pedstrianised area cordoned off by shiny curved rails.
“Bugger!” said Dan. He felt like getting out of the car and running after the woman. He got a grip on himself. “we just need to find who wears that sort of uniform.” he said.
By lunchtime they were exhausted. They had looked into every shop and business they could find.
“Lets buy some bread and cheese and sit in the park for a bit,” suggested Nell. They found a small supermarket. It was an old building, out of place among all the cranes and concrete office blocks that were being built in the centre of the town. Nell sat in the car while Dan went in. He came rushing out.
“She’s here!” he hissed. Nell jumped out and went to look through the shop window. The woman was working on the checkout. Her face was pretty but she looked tired. She smiled at the customers but her smile did not reach her eyes.
“I don’t want to speak to her yet!” said Dan, “ I want to chew this over a bit before I charge in.” This was new for Dan - he usually rushed into things and sorted out the fallout later. But this was too serious to handle like that.
“I’ll buy the stuff - you wait in the car,” said Nell. She went into the shop but found it hard to concentrate on the bread. She kept glancing over to the checkouts. The woman carried on scanning cans, bottles and packages, weighing vegetables. Nell searched her face for a likeness with Dan but other than the colouring could not see one. Dan was animated, full of energy. This woman was still, economic of movement, closed. She went to another checkout to pay and went back out into the sunlight.
“Lets leave the car here and walk over to the park,” she suggested. She locked the car and they walked quickly into the park. Dan could not sit still. His right leg danced a jig and he seemed like a spring that would rocket off at any moment.
“This is such an odd feeling!” he said. “I want to rush up to her an announce that I might be her son, but she looks like the sort of woman who might just deny it. I’d rather know a bit more about it before I speak to her. I might be the product of a rape or something.”
“Let’s take a drive up to the village your father came from. If we chat to some of the older people round there they may be able to give us some information.
- o -
Ginny sat on the lounger under the veranda reading a local paper that was in English.
“Rotary Club’s charity golf tournament is getting closer” she read, “my they have a wild old time here!”
“That’s the beauty of places like this,” said Bron, “no crime to write about. Give me golf tournaments any day over some of the stuff I get to deal with!”
Alex swam up and down the pool, looking blissfully content. Lucilia, the maid who came every morning to clean the villa, pottered around making the beds and sweeping. She was of an indeterminate age, somewhere between 60 and 80, with hair that was either a wig or had been dyed and set into large curls. She wore pale cotton trousers and a pale green t- shirt. Lucilia spoke no English so their interactions with her had been sign-language with a smattering of Portuguese that they found in the phrase book. She seemed a gentle, kind woman. She particularly took to the children and stroked Kenny’s cheek as she passed him, which, unusually for him, he tolerated.
“I’m glad we didn’t got to Moscow” said Andy, flicking through the weather on the TV, “ its 38 degrees there.” Andy had a liking for numbers. He spent hours poring over the football results; what Bron called his 'little numbers'. His favourite month was April. This was because the football season was about to come to an end and all the permutations gave him hours of fun, working out what would happen if teams won or lost, whether they would go up or down. When he was a kid Andy had invented an elaborate league on the stairs. He had a ball that he bounced and it had to hit the nosing of the tenth step. Each team had ten goes at it and the winner was the one who succeeded the most often. He had a cardboard league table on the newel post where he worked out the results. He wasn't allowed to play this when his mum, a piano teacher, had a pupil as the banging distracted them.
“Anyway, its full of gangsters” said Bron, “and the food is grim.” She and Ginny were drinking tea and idly pondering whether to go for a drive or to stay put. Molly was sitting at the table inside with Jack, planning their revised route on a map of Europe.
“Tea was introduced to Britain by Catherine of Briganza.” Andy was a mine of information, some of it useful. " It was brought back to Portugal from India and it was popularly known as cha. She introduced it to her husband Charles the Second. He was the 17th Century equivalent of David Beckham so because he took to it it became fashionable.”
"Well, we must be grateful to her," said Ginny. She was fond of saying 'ah, that hits the spot!' after her first slug of a cup of tea. She and Bron often joked about how they were turning into old ladies. If one of them said something like 'this is a good drying day' it would make them crease up.
Alex swam up and leant on his elbows on the side of the pool by Ginny and Bron.
“This puts me in mind of Bishop Heber. He was a very young and able cleric who was sent to be Archbishop of Calcutta. He ran round the subcontinent, working very hard.”
“And how exactly does this remind you of that?” asked Bron. Alex was very well-read and often came out with arcane gems of wisdom.
“He died very young, at 26. It was very hot and he dived into a pool – or a tank as they were known in India – and had a heart attack.”
“Best just get in down the steps then,” said Kenny, floating by on an inflatable dolphin.
“ Frederick Barbarossa died in similar circumstances”, said Andy, “he went into the Goksu River in full armour on 10 June 1190. He drowned either because of the weight of his armour or he expired from the heat. Mind you, he was 69 and given to corpulence.”
“Nothing wrong with corpulence,” laughed Bron, “both you and I are given to corpulence!”
“In my case, I prefer to call it my Homeric qualities,” said Andy. Kenny regularly told Andy he looked like Homer Simpson when he was sprawled on the sofa with a beer watching telly.
“I think I should have kept my ear tampons in!” said Ginny. She was a prone to water in her ears and when she explained this at the pharmacy the chemist had supplied her with a small plastic container of ear plugs. In Portuguese these were called ear tampons.
Frances and Billy were sitting on the brick terrace by the pool, watching something intently.
“What are you up to, guys?” said Molly, coming out of the house. You could never be too careful. Quiet children were often up to no good.
“Its ant research,” said Billy, “we're putting down the chocolate breakfast cereal balls and seeing how many ants it takes to carry them. They can’t get them down the cracks so they give the other ants a shout and they come up and eat them here.”
“Ants are amazing social creatures,” said Bron, “they have such tiny brains yet if they need to move eggs or bury a dead ant they all get stuck in. If only people were half as civilised.”
A car pulled up outside the villa. They could hear voices, which sounded as though they were speaking English.
“Hi there,” said a tall, dark man of about 30, coming round the corner into the garden. “I'm sorry to bother you. I'm carrying out some research into my family and I wondered if you would be able to help me. It seems my father came from this village.”
“We're just on holiday here,” explained Ginny, “but our maid may be able to help - she lives nearby. The only thing is she doesn’t speak English, but she may know someone in the village who could give you information.” Just then Lucilia came out of the house, drying the large blue salad bowl. She saw the man and went white. The bowl crashed to the ground and smashed. Lucilia started to babble in Portuguese and pointed at the man. Ginny helped her to a chair and gently helped her to sit down. A small fair woman came round the side of the villa.
”I hope you don’t mind me barging in like this but I heard a crash, I wanted to make sure everything was alright.”
“Nell!” cried Frances, leaping up and running over to her and throwing her arms round the woman, “come and see the ants!”
“Frannie, whatever are you doing?” called Molly.
“Relax, mum, this is my friend Nell.” said Frances in a voice that conveyed that Molly should have known this.
“We met on the plane. This is Dan, by the way. Frances liked my angora cardie.”
“That would figure,” grinned Molly, “so you guys are into genealogy?”
“Well, not exactly,” explained Dan, still shocked at Lucilia’s reaction to him, “I was adopted at birth and I’m trying to trace my birth parents. We went to the Town Hall in Lagoa and found that my father came from this village.”
“Jack and I have spent ages tracing our family – a lot of people in New Zealand came from Scotland and Ireland. We managed to find people quite a way back.”
“Do you think Lucilia recognises a likeness in you or something?” asked Bron. Lucilia was shaking and kept pointing at Dan, and speaking rapidly in Portuguese. It was obvious there was not going to be any more cleaning done that day so Ginny signed to Lucilia that they were happy if she went home. Lucilia thanked her profusely and backed out of the garden.
“Stay for lunch,” said Ginny, “we were going to light the barbecue.”
“Are you sure? we’d love to!” said Nell.
A cat prowled around the bushes as they prepared lunch.
“Its got a bird!” said Kenny.
“I doubt if you will be able to rescue it now, “ said Jack, “they're very efficient killers.”
“Kenny is very good with birds,” said Bron, “we used to have chickens and he was the best chicken catcher we ever saw. He would creep up on them and make them freeze by pretending he was a bird of prey!”
“And do you remember his school report?” laughed Andy, “it said he was good at creeping around the school as he was so thin he could hide behind doors!”
“I’ve been working on my stealth” said Kenny, walking slowly into the bushes towards the cat. He moved completely silently, then lunged and picked the cat up by the scruff of its neck. The bird fluttered away.
"Be nice, kitty." said Kenny in a sinister voice as he put the cat down.