By PAUL McKAY
Teacher Paul McKay left London to live a self-sufficient existence in the Monchique hills with his partner Martyn. He keeps an assortment of animals and grows a variety of crops in an eco-friendly way – all on a limited income.
Thursday October 2
We have a lodger. His name is Helder. Helder is 32, fit, affable and hard working. Watching him work relentlessly on the farm makes me suddenly feel very old.
Friday October 3
The arrival of Mother and Auntie Elsie is imminent. The hills of Monchique are a little problematic for them at the moment, especially Mother, who recently fell off a bus in Corfu. Today I put a deposit for them on a pretty little townhouse in Alvor. The house boasts a secluded courtyard garden with lemon trees and an enormous cheese plant.
Mother’s sojourn will involve a certain amount of subterfuge as I intend to keep a secret from her. This secret is my launch into the world of literature. A short while back I received an offer to publish a book I have been working on, based around moving to Monchique and our lamentable attempts at self-sufficiency – a little like this diary actually.
As soon as I received the offer, I set to work on redrafting and instantly the laptop began playing up. You know the sort of thing, becoming as hot as molten lava within seconds, crashing mid-sentence, the letter b refusing to work, strange bonging noises followed by al Quaeda style messages warning of fatal errors.
Financially we are further up the creek than ever, the paddle has disappeared, a new computer is out of the question so I plugged in a different keyboard. This resulted in all punctuation being in different places. I’ve yet to locate the pound sign… and on it went. Once I had got used to pressing the question mark when I wanted a semi-colon and other adaptations, I was then hit with writer’s block. Suddenly feeding the pigs became a desirable activity, as did cleaning hen houses, walking dogs and re-digging irrigation ditches. If I ever finish the book, I intend to keep it a secret from mother until Christmas Day, whereupon she will unwrap ‘A Year in Monchique’.
Tuesday October 7
I have just returned from a traumatic three hours with Mother and Auntie Elsie.
From my aerial vantage point at the airport, I witnessed them standing hopelessly at the wrong carousel, then disappearing off to the ladies for an age as their cases circled forlornly in a deserted arrivals lounge.
Next we arrived at the house in Alvor. Clearly it did not meet expectations. Mother looked around making ‘mmm… oh’ noises. Finally she announced the parquet flooring was nice. In an attempt to make things a little more homely, I mooted the idea of tea, then retreated to the kitchen to put the kettle on. This had the unanticipated effect of creating a blinding flash across the kitchen followed by a blackout. Elsie let out a shrill scream, I scrambled around for the fuse box and Mother produced a flashlight from her handbag.
Tea was eventually made with tinned milk (retrieved from a suitcase) using water boiled in one of the two travel kettles the sisters had brought with them. After tea I made a hasty retreat.
Wednesday October 8
Awoken at 7am by a text message. Apparently we are now on a two-centre holiday and I am the rep. Mother and Auntie were too nervous to sleep; they think the house is haunted. Bathroom visits, of which there were many, had to be taken together, riotous crowds could be heard cavorting outside until the early hours and the house was freezing. Today we are hotel hunting in Praia da Rocha.
Saturday October 11
Helder, who is a gardener, builder, odd job man extraordinaire, has been working for a neighbour designing and building a drought resistant garden. All the structures have been built using local materials and it is beginning to look quite tropical. Watching him work is quite exhausting and I am beginning to see where I have been going wrong all these years. The finished product looks timeless and rustic belying the deep foundations and metalwork underground. Helder is deservedly proud of his achievement. Hopefully word will spread and this beautiful garden will help secure him more work.
I went shopping with Mother and Auntie today. I have never been a great shopper but have had the little enthusiasm I did possess exorcised completely. The sisters seem to be able to pore over any item, no matter how inconsequential, for hours on end. Over coffee I was not even shocked when they both produced identical travel tape measures containing built in torches, presumably designed for emergency night time purchases.
Monday October 13
I have finally overcome writer’s block and despite the space bar refusing to do its job, have begun making good progress with the book. Martyn has taken to calling me Barbara Cartland and yelling ‘she’s got the muse’ up the stairs.
Eggs’ (family pig) hormones seem to be all over the place. She appeared to be pregnant, became heavy and developed swollen teats. No piglets have appeared however. This may be due to her having offspring (and their offspring) still with her. She has had a phantom pregnancy once before. November and December will have to be big killing months in order to regain a little control on the pig terrace. Two of the piglets have discovered escape routes and make regular sorties out of their compound and are often to be found raiding the acorn buckets at the side of the house.
Tuesday October 14
Mother and Auntie Elsie’s last night was marked by a farewell meal in the haunted house in Alvor, which we kept on as it was paid for. Fussy eating habits meant chicken and chips was as exotic as it got. Halfway through the evening, one of the sisters had the audacity to say that the house felt really lovely. I said nothing.
The evening’s conversation was peppered by phone calls from Helder and neighbours dealing with a crisis back on the farm. Helder had bought himself a hen (as you do) but unfortunately it is being persecuted by all the other hens, so he has nowhere to house it. Simultaneously, due to an EDP mix up, an engineer arrived at our house to cut the electricity off. A bill in May was unpaid, and despite subsequent bills being paid and a statement saying we were in credit, we were to be disconnected. A neighbour pleaded with the engineer to wait, while he went and paid the account for us. The engineer could not wait, and so, surrounded by two barking dogs, an escaped piglet, a beseeching neighbour and Helder, with a distressed clucking hen under his arm, the power was severed.
After an evening of heavy drinking, Mother and Auntie were dispatched to Praia da Rocha. This was not without incident either, as said auntie swayed worryingly as we entered the hotel lobby and then keeled over onto the marble floor. The receptionist came running to help but her expression of concern slowly gave way to barely disguised disgust as she realised the sweet old lady was pissed.
Just before I turned in for the night in Alvor, I received a call from Monchique telling me the estranged hen was spending the night in our Renault 5. Why is life so complicated?