The wonder of woolies

By PAUL MCKAY [email protected]

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.

Monday 8th December

Tomorrow I am off for a 10-day break to the UK, to catch up with family and friends. For the past three years, I have returned to the UK to work for the first four months of the year. Although I have tried hard to convince myself this was a small sacrifice to pay for spending the rest of my year in Portugal, I never really succeeded.

Living in the UK in January is bleak. Because of the impending departure, Christmas and the New Year have always been rather muted occasions.

This year it has all changed. I have found myself permanent work here in Portugal and I am overjoyed. I will be teaching at what seems to be a wonderful school with well motivated children and dedicated teachers. I will be able to remain in Portugal all year, maintain my vegetable garden throughout the winter and have a little more money to spend on the farm.

Friday 12th December

Four days in merry England and I am engaged in the latest national pastime – ransacking Woolworth’s. Up and down the country, people are in a frenzy buying up half-price tat the store couldn’t shift. To salve their consciences as they strip the shelves bare in front of weeping staff, they reminisce about the good old days, how Woolies brings back fond childhood memories; pilfering from the pic‘n’mix and the like. The true Wonder of Woolies for me is how they got away with it for so long.

I am currently visiting my parents in the Essex town where I grew up.  After scouring the depleted shelves of the Rayleigh Woolworth’s, I was surprised to notice, on exiting, that the TSB had closed down, replaced by a pound shop, no less. My first job when leaving school was as a cashier in this branch where it swiftly became apparent that this was not the career for me. I fell asleep on the second day of my induction week during a riveting session on the cheque clearing system.

I then spent four months failing to balance my till, mainly due to the boredom of it all. I remember returning to work after my first (and only) Christmas holiday and thinking, ‘my god – is this as good as it gets?’ 

Wendy, a colleague, had an unforgettable droning voice, depressing enough to make me consider hanging myself in the strong room. Whining Wendy was quite instrumental in me eventually leaving. She sat alongside me that first week of January and, with every customer, it was the same routine:

“How was your Christmas?” Wendy would bleat. Each customer would reply then ask her the same.

“Niiiiiice….quiiiiiiiiet…you know, just the two of us…but niiiice.” Every customer, over and over again.

Saturday 13th December

This afternoon was spent visiting my nan in the old people’s home where she now lives. I arrived at two-ish with my mum, dad and Patrick, my brother. After a bit of confusion at the entry system (Mum tapping in her bank pin code), we made our way along a corridor where we got snarled up in a traffic jam behind a lady with a zimmer frame. We eventually made it via a maze of corridors to the sitting room and located nan, perched on a sofa in the corner.

It was hard to imagine how this tiny, frail, nervous lady could really be my nan. Nan, who was always loud, self confident, quick witted and opinionated, seemed to have halved in size both physically and emotionally. She did not know who we were but kept up a pretence, making polite conversation about the weather, where we had been and where we were off to next.

She asked the same questions numerous times and we answered each time as if it were the first. The saddest aspect of nan’s demeanour was the fear. Nan had difficulty following the conversation but tried not to let on, the way people do when faced with a difficult accent, smiling and nodding at places hoped to be appropriate. In her eyes, she looked frightened.

Frightened of being found out, perhaps. I felt reluctant to talk too much, not wanting to add to this anxiety. I felt uncomfortable and awkward being there and guilty for feeling that way.

My mum, who visits twice every week, a journey involving two buses and long waits in the cold, was wonderful at keeping everything flowing and creating an illusion of normality. Without her, the ordeal would have been infinitely more painful.

I once asked her why she visits so frequently, as nan does not seem to know if she has been or not. Her answer, “But I would know,” tells me a lot about her and something about myself for needing to ask.

Saturday 20th December

Back in the Algarve and excited to see the sunshine again. The impact upon returning to the Algarve from Britain in the winter is the brightness. Brilliant blue skies, the lush-green verges and the sweet-corn yellow of the Bermuda buttercup, colonising any uncultivated land. Last month, I dug over a large piece of ground and planted mange-tout peas, broad beans, cabbages and lettuces. The sunny weather and regular rain have resulted in excellent germination and a vegetable patch that looks quite industrious. The oranges and grapefruits are finally changing colour and the clementines look as if they will be ready for Christmas. 

Wednesday 24th December

Spent all night eating Bacalhau – belt a little tight.

Thursday 25th December

Niiiice…you know…quiiiiiiiet but nice.

Saturday 27th December

I have spent the last week troughing it. I seem unable to resist the Christmas pudding and feel fit to burst. My jogging has become slower and slower and the t-shirt I was awarded for running the Lisbon half marathon in September feels uncomfortably tight.

To add salt to the wounds, a text message from the sponsors arrived yesterday telling me to get prepared for the next half marathon at Easter.

The post Christmas diet starts here.

Happy New Year.

Paul has recently published his first book entitled “A Year in Monchique” which can be purchased online through our website by clicking on the link to the right of this page. Paul John McKay can be contacted by emailing [email protected]