Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Wintering in the Algarve

I once had a friend in London - although he wasn't a friend really, more a failed writer I had taken up - whose house (dark, dusty and reminiscent of something from the Victorian age) contained an extensive private library. One small shelf in it was devoted to books about "wintering abroad". These had mainly been written in the Edwardian era or in the 1920s, and reassured anxious rentiers of both sexes that neither Nice nor Bordighera, nor any of their rival resorts, presented excessive perils in winter for English gentlefolk.

Times had changed when I used to go to lunch with "the aesthete", as I called him. Bordighera was no longer in fashion, and neither he nor I were rentiers, although we might as well have been, since we were both funding our lifestyles by running up enormous debts. Mine were all to the Royal Bank of Scotland in the form of mortgage, overdraft, credit card and loan. But he had a whole stack of plastic which he sometimes used to flip through with his fingers to show me, as if shuffling a pack of playing-cards.

We used to joke that he would be the first debt millionaire. But he couldn't winter abroad because he had to be in London for many days of each month to find out how much he owed and pay off something on every card. So he had to content himself with brief but triumphant gastronomic tours of northern France, with the Riviera at Christmas. Things were only so good in those days in London before the crash.

I regarded my unloved host with a certain amount of contempt and foreboding, and the idea of wintering abroad didn't appeal to me, because I still hoped, as he did not, for some great literary future in London. But time brings in its revenges, and while the aesthete is still, as far as I know, tending the vines in his stony town garden, I am occupying a house for this winter with peach and lemon trees in the extreme south of Europe. I haven't stayed here for the whole winter before, and intend to shelter at my house in Altura for a couple more months before I venture towards more rigorous climes.

The Algarve isn't fashionable either - another friend of mine, thank God not a writer, calls it "the Al-grave" - but my circle of elderly friends here is expanding, my mad druggy companion Joaquim intermittently performs his capers as we wander the streets, the supply of lemons in the garden for my almond liquers (have I spelt that correctly?) is holding out, and I have engaged the services of a local shrink who, for the moment at least, is treating me entirely free.

After lunch I retire to bed for rest, or to my table in the garden for Christian study. Meanwhile, a Spanish woman neighbour, Josefa, who was the only person in Altura to help my mother when she was desperately ill - and who also keeps a restaurant with her husband where I often take lunch - has offered to do my washing for the same price I would pay if I went to the launderette. Oh, and the sun shines brightly every day, although it is a little cold.

In moments not filled with rest, meals, Christian Study or Joaquim clinging to my neck, I am devoting myself to my genealogy, as elderly rentiers have done for many generations when they themselves are about to turn into a tree. There are mysteries on both sides of my family. I wrote about the one on my mother's side in my last post. I have made absolutely no progress in finding out any more about that.

On my father's side, there are stories, told to me by three ancient women who knew my mother at the time of my conception and birth, and who are remembering what she said to them, that my Dad was a German or Pole. According to one of the women, my mother met my father on a London tube train, when she got her finger stuck in the door, and I also very vaguely remember Mum telling me this story from my youth. She was naturally in great pain and distress, and the gallant gentleman sprang to her aid, took her to the hospital and at a later date, having obtained her phone number, made further urgent advances.

But my mother and the man who brought me up, to whom she was, as far as I know, legally married, an Englishman (it seems) called Arthur Ernest Hills, always told me that they had first met at the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand. It was at a dance to which Mum had gone with her sister Augusta. As far as I can remember, Arthur never mentioned the story about having met Mum on the tube train. It therefore looks as if my real father was not the fanatically English person my mother met at the dance, but the gallant gentleman who sprang to her aid on the train, the one who in a way really loved her, the mysterious Pole - or German.

Will I ever know whether he was a German or a Pole, if the station was Charing Cross or Cockfosters?

Perhaps not, but as I sip my almond liqueur in the garden in the sunny afternoon, and read the Gospel of John and then the Gospel of Mark, and contemplate the peach and the lemon tree, I love the gallant gentleman who lived in London once and now winters abroad.

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