John and Anne Hammond have burnt their boats. John has taken early retirement from his insurance company and they have sold their suburban bungalow and bought a run-down cottage in southern Spain. Henceforth life will be one round of perpetual sunshine and cheap booze.
But the realities of everyday living intrude. Their encounters with Spanish builders, bureaucracy, dodgy odd-job men and their attempts to integrate into their new mode of life are frustratingly humourous.
John tries his hand at writing a best seller and his wife takes up her painting again. But when they have to contend with the Spanish driving test and the traumas of family visitors, forest fires and the late hours of Spanish friends, the pressure becomes intense.
Our agreeable but naive Brits sit on their terrace, the sun warm on their backs. They are drinking wine and contemplating their new, palm-fringed swimming pool. Across the valley, whitewashed cottages cluster around a blue-domed church. Beyond, the vista of mountain peaks stretches for a trillion miles.
‘Oo-o,’ Anne says. ‘It’s ever so nice!’
John nods and takes another swig, ‘I’ve never been one to complain.’‘Yes you are,’ says his better half. ‘You complain all the blooming time.’
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Tripe and Spanish Onions
I WAS UP BETIMES, as us authors put it, and couldn’t wait to begin work on my story. Despite one hell of a throbbing headache I’d been planning it all night long.
The whir and grind of the washing machine from the utility room proclaimed that Anne too had made an early start.
I sat for a moment looking out of the window. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was already blazing down. Behaving as proscribed in the travel brochures.
Beyond our pine-fringed terrace and the blinding white cottages of the village, the mountains merged into a haze of bluish-purple. I sighed. This was no time to be sitting indoors. I could be out and about, downing a few jars and some spicy tapas with my good friend Carlos.
I drew the blind and began to type. Slowly at first, then a little faster.
John An@ Ann$e HAm/monde Hab--
I swore gently under my breath and wiped the offending line out. The screen became as blank as my brain. At this rate my masterpiece would take until I was ninety-two.
My dear daughter had presented me with her old laptop. She had also kindly given me a three-minute lesson.
‘You’ll do fine, dad,’ she’d told me. ‘When you get the hang of it. It’ll give you something to do now you’re too doddery to do anything useful.’
I was stung. ‘Your mother and I are in the prime of life!’ I’d told her.
‘You could’ve fooled me.’
‘I’ll have you know, my girl,’ I’d said sternly, ‘I intend to write a best-seller.’
‘We’re both going to do the things we’ve always wanted to but haven’t had the time–’
But she’d gone. I’d wanted to tell her that her mother had begun painting again. Might even have an exhibition at the local art gallery. But she’d gone. Was back on her wretched iPhone for the forty-ninth time that morning.
I began typing again. Very slowly and carefully this time.
John and Anne Hammond had burnt their boats. John had taken early retirement
from his insurance company and they had sold their suburban bungalow and bought
a run-down cottage in Southern Spain. Henceforth life would be one round of
perpetual sunshine and cheap booze–
My better half came up behind me carrying the clothes basket. ‘You’re typing with one finger again,’ she mumbled through the clothes pegs she held in her mouth.
‘All my other fingers are painful.’
‘Where I caught ‘em in that blasted mousetrap.’
She sighed. She sighed quite a lot nowadays. ‘Talking of which,’ she said. ‘You’re not using the mouse. You know what Dawn said about using the mouse.’
‘I know. But that silly arrow thing skitters about all over the place.’
She prodded me lovingly in the ribs. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘I’ll just hang these things on the
line to dry.’
‘Then you’d better get ready.’
‘Get ready for what?’
She pushed back a wayward tendril of hair. ‘We have to be at the testing centre
I groaned. ‘Oh, Lord! I’d forgotten. Do we have to go? I’m ill. I don’t feel well.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ said my dear wife sympathetically. ‘Downing three glasses of brandy
at Susy Frost’s last night.’
I stared at her. ‘I didn’t swig three brandies last night!’
‘Yes you did. You helped yourself when she was out of the room.’
I gave in. There’s never any point in arguing with women. ‘Let’s postpone this testing thing,‘ I said.
‘We can’t. It took Luis yonks to fix up and he says you must have a Spanish driving license. It’s the law.’
I nodded sadly. Our gestor, an ingenious mixture of Spanish lawyer, accountant and spiv, had been most insistent.
‘But Señor Hammond,’ Luis Diez had said. ‘If you keeping English car it must be having Spanish plates. It necessary you taking driving test. No problemas. You very old mans. Drive like clappers.’
I wasn’t at all happy. ‘The test centre’s ninety-five miles away,’ I protested.
‘It’s thirty kilometres.’
‘Hm-m,’ I said in a meaningful manner. ‘Right-ho, old thing,’ I said. ‘Righty-jolly-ho.’
I switched off the computer. ‘I’ll bet Frederick Forsyth never has these worries.’
THE TESTING CENTRE was about thirty-five kilometres north of our village. As usual,
the small town was in fiesta and jam-packed with wildly partying crowds. Brass bands
played at full throttle and red and yellow bunting was strung across every street. There was nowhere to park, so Anne dropped me off and we arranged I would call her on my mobile when I was through.
The centre was a long, low, modern building in a beautiful setting of palm trees and exotic greenery. Colourful bougainvillea clambered everywhere. Bees buzzed and birds twittered.
Inside it was more daunting. A million pink plastic chairs confronted me, all occupied by anguished-looking customers tearing their hair.
‘Hola!’ said a cheerful voice behind me. A tall, formally dressed guy was beaming at me.
I stared blankly back.
‘Ah! You not recognising,’ he said. ‘Me Angel. Your friend Carlos’ cousin. I working
‘Good Lor!’ I said. ‘Are you an optician or something?’
‘No, no! I administrator only.’
‘I thought you were a bus driver--’
Angel nodded. ‘Sí. Bus driver also.’ He shrugged. ‘A man has to live.’
He led me to a seat in the second row and I gave him the letter from Luis Diez. He glanced around furtively and bent close to my ear. ‘Hist,’ he said.
‘Sorry?’ I said.
He put a finger to his lips. ‘I arranging,’ he whispered. ‘You waiting here.’
I sat back and took stock. Everyone was talking at once and there was a noisy bar at the far end of the room. Things were looking more promising.
In the back row was a shabby straw boater. Beneath the hat lurked Charlie Bates and I gave him a wave. Crafty Charlie was the dodgy Jack-of-all-trades among the English community and usually the most cheerful man alive. ‘Why so glum?’ I asked.
‘Gawd!’ he said. ‘It’s evil! You knows me old caravan, guv. Wot I fitted out as a travellin’ workshop, like?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Of course.’ Everyone relied on Charlie’s mobile workshop.
‘Wot’ya fink?’ Charlie went on. ‘Cos it ain’t to the manufacturer’s spec, they won’t put it inta Spanish plates. Can’t work wivout me bleedin’ van, can I? Know wot I mean?’
‘Oh, dear!’ I said. ‘That’s terrible,’ I said.
‘An’ I finks I’m a-goin’ blind in one eye,’ he added sadly.
I WAS LUCKY. Angel’s persuasive tongue and my gestor’s letter obviously carried a clout. My turn came without too much delay and Angel led me personally into a consultancy room.
’This very important mans,’ he whispered to the gorgeous girl in the exceedingly short skirt. ‘Friend of Queen Sofia’s brother.’
I was reassured. The test didn’t seem difficult at all. Because many Spaniards are illiterate, it’s no good the authorities providing large, black letters to test their eyesight. Instead they are shown little images of ducks, elephants and tigers in various sizes. This was a doddle, I told myself.
The girl smiled at me. Her eyes were very blue. ‘What you seeing?’ she asked.
Resisting an inclination to tell her, I concentrated hard. ‘An elefante?’ I suggested.
‘Sí,’ she agreed, tossing back her glossy hair. ‘But señor.’ She waggled an admonitory, scarlet-tipped finger at me. ‘Which ways it facing?’
‘Ah,’ I acknowledged my error. ‘It is an elefante facing right!’
She beamed brightly and put a large tick on a long, buff form. I had passed the first hurdle.
‘You meeting Queen Sofia’s brother in England?’ she asked.
I nodded. ‘He’s a great guy.’
‘I having brother in Brighton. He waiter in fish shop. Perhaps you knowing–’
‘I expect so,’ I said. The Spanish always like to feel they share your world.
I said a reluctant adiós to my new friend and was shown immediately into the next room.
The second test consisted of using one of those computer game machines. Where one guides a car along a road and attempts to avoid hitting the curves and oncoming traffic as they increase the speed.
I’m sure most people’s reactions quicken and the whole thing becomes a cinch. It
wasn’t so for me. Every time the car came to a corner I hit it and a loud buzzer sounded angrily in my ear.
‘Never mind,’ said the operator. She kindly reset the machine. ‘Have another go.’
At the sixteenth attempt she gave a great sigh and adjusted the computer to function so slowly I could see all the corners coming.
‘Estupendo!’ she enthused, ticking my form. ‘You are passing!’
But after I had kicked my heels in a waiting room for a further half hour and been shown into the boss-man, it seemed a different story.
El jefe was a big man with soulful brown eyes. He regarded me pityingly from behind his large desk and smoothed back his greying hair. Then he stared at me without speaking for a long time.
He shook his head and puffed out his breath in strange little gusts. Then he turned the buff form over and scribbled a few words.
’Señor,’ he said carefully. ‘It is necessary--’
Words failed him for a moment and he rose and walked to the window. He stood staring out at the congested street for a long time. Then he turned and again shook his head.
‘Señor,’ he began again. ‘It is difficult--’
At last, he looked me in the eye and patted his heart in a meaningful manner. After a while he lowered his gaze, put his arm about my shoulders and escorted me silently to the door.
I TELEPHONED ANNE and when she picked me up I told her miserably I had failed.
‘I don’t know how,’ I said, ‘but they have some incredibly sophisticated gear in there. It tests every organ in your body.’
‘Well I never,’ she said frowning. ‘What’s wrong, then?’
‘I think it’s my heart.’ I put a hand to my chest. ‘It’s going thud, thud, THUD.’
‘I think that’s what it’s supposed to do–’
‘I’ve felt unwell for days.’
‘You never said–’
‘I’m not one to complain.’
‘Yes you are,’ Anne said. ‘You complain all the blooming time.’
I didn’t answer. We Hammonds’ have our pride.
‘IT’S DOUBLE-DUTCH TO ME!’ Anne confessed and I nodded. Neither of us could make out a word of the squiggly writing on the driving test form.
We drove straight to our gestor’s office and ran him to earth at last in the old-fashioned bar next door. It was dark inside after the bright sunlight and I took off my sunglasses.
Bullfight posters and faded photographs lined the walls. Prawn shells littered the
floor. Above the bar stood a row of dusty silver cups and a wooden plaque inscribed ‘VALENCIA 1945’.
The great man was sprawled against the counter having coffee and cakes with a rather delectable blonde creature. He was not pleased to be interrupted.
‘Luis,’ I pleaded, above the din of the television, the radio and the espresso machine. ‘Please tell us what it says.’
Luis Diez reluctantly fumbled for his spectacles and scratched his right ear with them. Then he read the form very, very slowly and patted the blonde absently on the bottom. After
a while he shrugged and walked to the door and lit a cigar.
When he returned he leaned against the bar once more and ordered himself a glass
‘Come on, Luis,’ said my wife impatiently. ‘Get a move on and tell us the worst. We’re worried sick.’
Luis sighed and cleared his throat. Then he thumped his chest somewhere in the region
of his heart.
‘Señor Hammond,’ he said gravely. ‘You are passing the driving test.’ He nodded encouragingly at me and sipped his brandy. ‘But it is most necessary you carrying an extra pair of spectacles in your breast pocket whenever you driving your car.’
WE DROVE HOME in silence. Each lost in our thoughts. When we arrived back at the cottage I poured us both stiff martinis and we threw ourselves thankfully into comfortable armchairs.
‘Did we have any lunch?’ I asked Anne after a while.
‘Oo-o, no!’ she said. ‘We forgot. I don’t remember you ever missing lunch before.’
I grinned at her. ‘It just proves there are more important things than food–’
‘That reminds me,’ Anne sighed. ‘I must get the washing in.’
‘And I’ll forage us up some bread and cheese.’
I busied myself in the kitchen and opened a decent bottle of red wine. Anne took the laundry basket and went behind the cottage where I had rigged up a clothesline.
Within minutes she was back, waving aloft some scraps of filthy rag and the remains of torn socks.
‘Ugh!’ she yelled, holding up a disgustingly huge bra. ‘Those rotten gipsies! They’ve taken all our clothes and left us theirs in exchange!’
I shuddered and handed her a glass of wine. ‘My mother said I never should, play with the gipsies in the wood–’
Anne laughed. ‘And my daddy said that if I did, he’d rap my head with a tea-pot lid!’
‘Ah!’ I said. ‘They don’t write lyrics like that nowadays.’
‘I know,’ Anne said. ‘Isn’t it great–’