The great escape.jpg

The great escape


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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. He is currently back in London for a few months to teach maths and english to 11-year-olds.

Sunday February 3

A week ago I made a lightning visit back to Portugal.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon your viewpoint, I arrived at a time when Eggs (mother pig), followed by 11 piglets had begun to breach the fence and head for pastures new.

Initially, Martyn turned a blind eye, on account of her not going too far and getting them back was straightforward.

Merely calling out her name began a mini stampede towards the feed bowls.

By the time I arrived, however, these wanderings were becoming more of an issue.

Pig nature being what it is, she began venturing further afield for longer periods of time until eventually startled neighbours were commenting on pigs passing their front doors in the middle of the afternoon.

When a few cabbages and some lettuces were sampled from a neighbour’s vegetable patch, it was clearly time for action.

A new electric fence was constructed using metal rods, which we hammered deep into the ground and covered with plastic tubing. Preparation of these rods was a task in itself, as Martyn cut them at the builder’s merchant in Monchique using an angle grinder.

In London, eye-contact with strangers is a serious non-starter so it was refreshing that such cultural peculiarities are a long way from Monchique.

Within minutes of beginning the task, we had an audience of onlookers, along with one man who seems to spend his entire day hanging around building suppliers for the entertainment value alone.

There seemed to be a healthy debate as to whether the angle grinder would be up to the task.

Eventually, after a whole days work, by dusk a new electric fence was put into active service.

Eggs, a caring mother to the end, eyed the fence suspiciously and watched patiently as her offspring (Guinea pigs perhaps) tried it out, one at a time.

When the third piglet got a shock, she satisfied herself that the fence was working efficiently and satisfied herself with some weeds in her own compound.

Wednesday February 6

Back in London now and today I went to a ‘Body Toning’ class, run by Dexter.

I arrived 10 minutes early and waited outside with a hotch-potch of keep fitters, mostly women, no-one particularly unfit looking but no-one overly toned either.

Assuming everything and understanding nothing, I considered my level of fitness to be at least equal to theirs, so had no concerns upon entering the class.

Twenty minutes later, panting and sweating like an overweight hyena, I was quickly losing the will to live.

The sweat was pouring from my brow. I was regularly having to stop for breath. My face was the colour of beetroot and I seemed to have lost all sense of rhythm, constantly stepping the opposite way to everyone else.

Conversely, the others were serene, well timed and for the most part sweat free – even the large lady with the inappropriate track suit.

Every time I stopped to take a rest, I looked up to see Dexter eyeballing me, either face to face or via a mirror.

He managed to create a particularly wounding expression that combined disappointment with pity.

Thursday February 7

Today was yoga. I arrived a couple of minutes late to enter a tranquil room of people with their bottoms facing the sky.

All the mats had been taken and the music did little to relax me as l scrambled about to take my shoes off, praying my feet didn’t smell.

Jasmina, wearing flouncy scarves and a perpetually shocked expression, gave me a welcoming smile that seemed to carry a tinge of reproach, undoubtedly due to my clumsy arrival disturbing the restful mood.

Matless, I set to work, following Jasmina’s instructions, although having difficulty executing them.

If Dexter’s accusatory looks were dispiriting, Jasmina’s supportive encouraging looks were humiliating.

Whether it was Dexter’s workout or simple ineptitude, I seemed to have no balance. As everyone else stands on one toe, I wave and wobble all over the place.

Jasmina sensitively moved around the room but never seemed far from me, so I could see her perfectly model the various movements.

Whenever I wobbled she seemed to be flouncing past.

So focused was I on ‘getting it right’ that often I was only aware of her presence by the merest breeze and the stupifying scent of petunia oil in the air. The ambiance of calm and supportive serenity that pervaded every crevice of the room belied the inner excruciating pain I was feeling as I rapidly became aware that I was a long way from being at one with myself.

During the final 10 minutes I seemed to lose all personal dignity. While trying to keep upright during an exceptionally difficult balance I resorted to an outrageous bout of arm waving.

The highlight of the session was minutes before the end when, during a particularly tricky balance, the somewhat oppressive calmness was disturbed by a loud anonymous fart.

To her credit, Jasmina ignored it and none of her subjects so much as giggled.

Session over and we put our shoes on. Jasmina told me I was at the start of a very long journey.

Sunday February 10

I awoke at around 8am to bright sunshine and birdsong!

Making the most of the moment, I leapt from bed, put on the trainers and headed for the local common for a run.

I arrived to see the grass reflecting the low winter sun, which burnt through the trees.

The icy rawness refreshed the skin, the moist air tasted fresh, the blanket of frost suppressed the London hum and the blinding sunlight hid the unsightly anatomy of the east end.

For a few brief minutes beauty triumphed over grime.