Bloque D


We could have gone for El Paso, an almost totally British complex, palisaded like an early settlers' village to keep the Indians out; with very nicely kept gardens and flowering bushes, very quiet and comforting, a pretty pool and a few people who passed by with a smile and a nod. Dick and Jesse lived here in a delightful two bedroomed bungalow. Back home in Staffordshire they owned a restaurant but, with advancing age, it became too much for them to handle. We did not meet them until much later at the home of a mutual friend, but, for our immediate cursory view, the unbalanced stillness reminded me of a protected environment for elderly people. For us, behaving like strangers, we decided that El Paso was not our thing.

Cristimar was backed by the Banco Canario with Proteccion Oficial del Estado and that was what really decided us. Safe. No fly-by-night speculative builder who might well cut and run for the mainland leaving us stranded. At that time the British media were giving a lot of weight to people dumped by builders who had taken their money and disappeared. Thus reassured about Cristimar, we paid our deposit and waited for the complex to be inspected and cleared, signed for our keys at the site office, put our names to the Escritura and took the lift to the fourth floor of Bloque D.

Plan of flat D4/1

D4/1. Empty, hollow-sounding - and all ours. We scooted in and out like kids, marking our new territory with a salutary pee, then a flush... a flush... a flush "Alan, there's no water!" Temporary panic until I discovered the stopcock, then a satisfying flush loud as Niagara boomed around the empty rooms.

We discussed furniture, decoration, admired the kitchen and the laundry room beyond. But the veranda, hanging out over space, was a fearful prospect for Lizzie, advancing step by step, clutching my arm, eyes half closed, groping for the rail, drawing deep breaths until she dared look down and see the pool.

"Alan, there's no water in it!"

"Give it time, mouse. I'll pray for rain."

Two of the other three apartments on our floor were equally cavernous and unoccupied. We heard noises in D4/2, explored and found Bernardo and Berenca measuring up for curtains.

"British!" exclaimed Berenca, "Estado Oficina say you are here already!"

Nobody has yet explained to me why friendships flourish on foreign soil... We both came halfway, met in the hallway. We seemed to know each other.

And it rained beautifully. We drank coffee and watched children with umbrellas dancing gleefully, standing with faces upturned, barefoot on the warm wet paving. Bernardo noted with a smile raindrops splashing into his coffee. "Seldom in July we get the rain." I remained smugly silent about my amazing gift and got a poke in the ribs.

"Bet you couldn't do that again, clever dick!"

"Twice I have provided water. Be grateful, woman!"

Our programme was to give ourselves room to enjoy a few nibbles of work on the retirement level and provide an out-station for the family. We could not afford to be wealthy. We may even be poor as church mice, for untypical common sense bade us hang on to the Wanstead house instead of selling up and becoming capitalised. So now we have two monthly mortgage payments. Clever dick reckoned he was going to be a poor struggling painter and writer while his devoted wife continued with Spanish to A level and assisted devoted husband with English grammar and her keen sense of colour which was far better than his.

I mean - let's put common sense to this. Whoever heard of a colour-blind painter? But I am quite good at drawing. Maybe I should stick with graffiti!

A choked feeling that we'd had enough finally broke through our doleful toleration of traffic queues on the A406, thoughtless shoppers parking in my office space, the banalities of tv, junk mail, telephone advertising, double glazing people with special offers, religious cults - especially those American dealers in smart suits - and people with clip boards doing surveys on whether we preferred canned or whole tomatoes. The penultimate straw was the possibility that our quiet street was to be closed to all parking except for permit holders. The planned result would prevent motorists rushing for Snaresbrook Central Line from leaving their cars on our street. Most of these kerb stealers had enough sense to leave my garage entrance clear. The one who didn't coincided with my stint as duty officer for the borough, so, with great satisfaction, I got the police to remove it.

Crippling attacks of migraine finally decided me and I retired early. I then wrote to Pauline Pacey at Royal Insurance saying that the Manns were leaving for a foreign shore and would not need a car any more and please quote for a donkey and a camel. She wrote back to enquire whether it was for one hump or two? and wishing us a lovely time.

Cristimar was designed for first time buyers and our apartment certainly looked as though we were first time, minimally furnished with double bed and two singles, two cane easy chairs and two occasional tables. We ate outside on the veranda where we had a small white plastic table and four plastic chairs.

Surveying our new scene Lizzie remarked,

"We must have been mad, my good man,"

"Dead right! Out on a limb is for juveniles, not for people in their early fifties."

On the day the pool was filled Bernardo and Berenca entertained us to dinner, expressed themselves amazed at our enterprise. But then, they envisaged a life in London with all its glamour of the South Bank, the concerts, the theatres, the museums and galleries, a vision untainted by grinding daily life on the streets.

"You leave all that - for this?"

"In London, amigo, cars will no longer be driven. They will stand permanently hitched to their parking meters in case somebody steals the vacant space, they will be washed and dusted from time to time, left there as an ongoing token of mankind's folly. A few cars will be allowed, but they will carry special plates and drivers will carry permits to drive into the city centre. Passengers will walk and wait for the car to catch up with them. Never again will there be crocodiles of mixed infants crossing busy highways, and, for want of employment, Lollipop ladies will be creating mischief. Arrests will be made..."

City wit is wasted in a fishing village and our kind neighbours were quite lost on Lollipop ladies until we explained: "I retire was permit early. ETA raid my banco three times and I say this is sufficient for me. I go now please."

Bernardo and I had common ground. It was a good start.

Our main problem was our books and minor decorations. These had been packed in six tea chests and were awaiting us at the import agents office in Santa Cruz. So, on a blazing hot August day we caught the bus to Santa Cruz to find our import agent. Hot and bothered and totally out of sorts we found him on a side street near the docks.

A fussily efficient man he apologised for the frips and fraps of paperwork, but was pleased to announce that all our labels on the tea chests were in order, the inside copies matched the outside copies and with his office copies.

We agreed delivery for Wednesday morning. There would be extra charge for delivery...

Well, of course. Being terribly British and all that, we did not fuss about a few pesetas. The total meant that we could afford a propane gas container for tomorrow but could not afford lunch in town.

It's called "Cashstration" when you buy a second home: which means you are financially impoverished for an indefinite period. But we have wit and humour and we have each other which makes it fine.

So, Wednesday came and went. Thursday arrived in the same blistering heat; too hot to sit on the veranda, barefoot was impossible and we hadn't as yet got ourselves a canopy. By chance we saw our tea chests on a flat bed lorry, the driver hesitating by the new supermarket. We yelled and waved, and then he saw us.

Keys to the ground floor garage had not yet been issued, so the lorry had to remain on the street. No sack truck, no trolley, just the six tea chests, each weighing two hundredweight in old money - or 100k if you prefer - the driver and me. We looked at the work, considered the heat, then, in a fit of inspiration, our driver went next door where they were building the Paloma Beach complex and borrowed a clapped-out wheelbarrow. It had a flat tyre, was encrusted with several strata of dried cement and went crabwise. We manhandled five of those tea chests one by one through the ground floor garage, into the lift at Bloque D and up five floors to our apartment. "Muy, muy pesado" gasped our driver.

"Una mas."

"One more - thank God!"

Halfway through the garage our decrepit wheelbarrow finally quit, so we dragged that last tea chest over the smooth concrete into the lift at Bloque D.

Lizzie had prepared coffee. We still lacked a fridge so cold drinks were not possible. Bottled water had warmed up to room temperature, cold water from the tap was listed as potable but nobody believed it.

We were amazed at the lack of foresight that sent a driver seventy-five kilometres from Santa Cruz to deliver over half a ton of books and office equipment with no supporting trolley wheels, no driver's assistant and on the wrong day.

"Viva Espana," quoth Lizzie. "We ain't seen nothin' yet!"

This was the first time we'd had a bathroom with a bidet; it gave a touch of class to our otherwise bare apartment. And we'd never had built-in wardrobes with sliding doors before, so it meant a separate mirror for Lizzie on the bedroom wall. My poor wee mouse had only her compact and a small circular make-up mirror. A bathroom cabinet would be next. So the books must wait awhile.

A familiar sound struck the ear, something which reminded me of home. I moved swiftly to the kitchen. "Lizzie, I heard a magpie!"

"Sorry love. Me, stirring the tea." My thick office mug, the one that had given me twenty-two years of unbroken service, chattered like a magpie as the spoon rattled across.

"Do they have magpies here, I wonder? I remember two from way back: in my former life in Nottingham we had magpies and a jay that used to imitate them perfectly. They used to pinch the nuts we put out for the squirrels. I have an imperishable vision of my youngest, Tina, standing stock still, facing a squirrel with twitching tail and impatient feet wanting his nuts please.

"Funny I should remember that right now. Former life is past life. Don't see any of them now."

"You were younger then, my prince. And so was I. Talking of birds, there's a bird person on the beach with binoculars. He looks British. Go and arrest him."

"I am no longer an officer of the court, thank God! Tell you what - you go arrest him. You'll certainly make an impression in your nothings."

The luxury of cool marble on bare feet came to a sudden end when we ventured outside. So we stood on towels, called and waved.

Our first British friend, Peter the bird man, lived up in the hills somewhere near Arona. He had a car and the first time he came to arrest me for a bit of bird watching was to see a pair of pratincoles by the local reservoir. I noted the look on Lizzie's face. "Search me, kid! I wouldn't know a pratincole if one fell on my foot!"

Thereafter he became a regular visitor, loaned hand tools to help fix things to walls, doorstops to floors and provided many items of local knowledge that newcomers don't have.

In the meantime we depended on bare essentials, bottled water for drinking, bottled gas for cooking. The bathroom cabinet was fixed, a three-quarter length mirror was fixed to the bedroom wall, we bought a fridge so we no longer had to drink warm water, a food cupboard and a tape deck for sundry notes of music. Grouped in the empty small bedroom in their tea chests the books were still waiting.

"No, you go. I've got things to do."

"What's to do in a half empty apartment?"

""Nesting," said Peter, firmly. "Essential for the female. By the way, how do you spell Auriole?"

"A or O"

"Dunno. Lost it. Haven't got my bird book."

Our beautiful Oxford Dics. A to M in tea chest 2, N to Z in tea chest 5. Big and heavy, I remember packing them at the bottom of each chest, smaller books on top.

"Let's try 2."

"How can I clean," asked Lizzie, "with all this lot all over my floor?"

We don't often get combative, but this is just sparring, part of the domestic games we play.

"Our floor!" I reminded her sharply. "I clean too, you know..."

"You don't get the corners!"

"I get most of them."

"There are always four corners to a room, my man. You really must learn to count."

"Should I bugger off," suggested Peter tactfully, "and find my bird book?"

It didn't take him long to discover our family bandinage that often goes in circles leaving no one on top.

Right at the bottom I found A to M. "'Auriole: a circle of light round the heads of divine figures.' Dammit! It's the other one - Oriole." But it was a positive move, admitting no question. In the name of a bird the tea chest was unpacked.

We just can't throw books away. Read or unread, dry or juicy, they teem with hidden value. So many! We are trying to resist the temptation to open and read a snippet or two: with Peter well into White's The Once and Future King and Lizzie into Swedlin's World of Salads, the books were slowly stacked in columns on the floor. One of my favourites The Zimmermann Telegram was carefully placed on top.

"Well, I did hope it would be lace curtains next - but now it just has to be bookshelves, my prince."

A home without curtains looks derelict. Several newly occupied apartments already have curtains. And here we are, part of Galbraith's Affluent Society, a month in residence, one tea chest unpacked and five to go, and torn between curtains and bookshelves, for we can't afford both. I tend to forget that Lizzie has the sort of pride that is not in line with masculine stuff.

So, tell you what - tomorrow will be curtains, no messing!

Lizzie returns, her Mas e Menos shopping bag heavy and bulging.

"What on earth have you got there, petal?"


"You've been shopping for stones?"

"No, silly! I got them off the stony beach behind Costamar."

"Dare I ask why?"

Something marvellous; by the time I start washing the second half of the veranda the first half is dry!

Something else marvellous! when the electricity is cut off - which it often is - at night time you can see breathtakingly brilliant stars, the moon reflected in the sea; you can see the loom and flash of the lighthouse on La Gomera twenty miles away and the twinkling camp fires of the street people living in the caves on the mountain sides.

Gone midnight and my sweet Lizzie is asleep. I am on the veranda watching the night. The corner of my eye catches something. Something missing. A power cut on La Gomera? No, not possible. Lights are glowing on that distant island. What then? Ah! That's it! The lighthouse is out. This is serious shit for seafarers! Local boats don't have sat nav. They need that light. for Pete's sake!...

Aha! the light returns, thank God! Absent for about five periods now it is back, flashing as usual. The reason; a ship is moving slowly between Tenerife and La Gomera. It must be fairly close to our side for it blocked the flash from La Gomera's lighthouse for several periods. Near and big - a cruise ship possibly. Tomorrow we may see it anchored outside the harbour. No, not a cruise ship, for if it were it would be ablaze with lights. Invisibly dark, a tanker maybe putting into Santa Cruz.

Strange sights for a city bloke, and strange sounds. The cicadas make a hell of a racket.

And there's somebody in the pool. The pool is not to be used after nightfall. Against the rules. Our envigilante is ex-military and he won't stand for this. Within minutes he is there ordering them out. Spanish voices argue. He picks up their clothes and marches off. Wicked sod! Immediately followed by two naked girls shrieking.

Tomorrow will definitely be curtains to please the house and maybe bookshelves and wall brackets and maybe another tea chest... Maybe.

We are here. More or less settled. Our venture into the Canary Isles will succeed, for once embarked upon it cannot be allowed to fail.

The heat in September is wicked. There is a sort of dry-baked look about everything that should be green. The fabric of Cristimar, having absorbed the heat of summer, is radiating heat and nowhere is cool.

"What you need is a persiana. It will keep your veranda cool and the tiles they will not get hot and carry into your salon," Berenca advised.

"It's on our list" we said, which was as near as we could get without admitting we couldn't afford a canopy without getting behind with our hipoteca.

"You and we are the highest people. There is no veranda above you for shelter."

We calculated it might take three years before we could begin to rest easy.

Brought to the light of day, the canopy situation took a great stride up the priority list.

My previous life is rarely brought to the light of day. Recollection occurs intermittently. In the firm belief that I would never see them again, I deserted my wife and children with a steely resolve to start afresh.

Lizzie left home and her children left with her. Love occupies her thoughts constantly. There are sorrows, for now she sees her children rarely. A telephone is next on the list of priorities.

I had been informed by Island Gazette that I might be paid for my work. I had also been informed that a leisure magazine does not normally pay its contributers. So I must needs look elsewhere for income.

At that time it was hard to visualise the amount of work that would come to us...

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