By Theresa O’Shea
About a month after we became the proud owners of our first-ever mortgage, Francisco locked me in the bedroom. It was an accident, of course. Old country houses oozing with character tend to come with old country keys, long, heavy and well-worn, the kind that have the chap at your local ferretería (hardware store) scratching his head and scribbling down the address of some specialist keysmith in an unheard part of town you know you’ll never go to. So just the one key it is. We work out a system. Francisco gets up for work at 7.15 am. He locks the bedroom from the outside – so I can enjoy a cat-free lay-in – and then pushes the key under the door. One day, he forgets.
At 8.30 my mobile bursts into its horribly catchy get-out-of-bed jingle. Whatever happened to regular alarm clocks that just go brrrriiiiiing? I rub my eyes and stumble to the door. The key. It’s not there. It must be. I get down on the floor and grope around. It’s not. Disbelief turns to fury. I storm and stomp for a bit. I have a class at 9.30. Have to leave at 9.00 am. How could he forget? How could he make me a prisoner in my own house? Fury turns to panic. There’s no mobile phone reception in our village, and the land line is five yards away. In the living room. Behind the door.
From the bedroom window to the patio below, it’s a five-metre drop, with nothing in between but a length of ancient water pipe and a mass of bougainvillea, shockingly pink, lethally barbed. I’m dying for a pee. The toilet is across the upper patio in the other half of the house. First, I try the door. I shove hard, but wouldn’t really want to damage it even if I could. Such a pretty old puerta, painted in cobalt blue and yellow. I can see that the key is actually in the lock. I find a paper clip at the bottom of my handbag (hey, I’m a woman AND a teacher), turn it into primitive pliers (I’m an ex-girl guide, too) and try a little keyhole surgery. Impossible. OK. Think. Didn’t I see in a movie once where they forced the lock with a credit card? I try, and nearly snap my flexible friend in two.
I look at my watch. 8.55 already. I turn my attention to the window. Such a pretty old window, small, box-like, with blue and lemony shutters, a wide ledge on the inside and a narrow one on the outside. I wedge myself in the frame and lean out. Immediately opposite, and to my right, the rose-pink walls of the patio blaze with autumn ivy. A framed Hercules and the lion mosaic peeks out from behind the branches of an orange tree. All around the edges are yuccas and aloes, mint and parsley, and a riot of weeds and flowers that my green-fingered, seriously absent-minded partner is dying to get his hands on. For a moment I forget my plight and I’m reminded what a gem of a place we’ve found. When I interview expats about their dream homes, out come the mantras: “We just knew it was for us.” “It felt right.” “As soon as we saw it, that was it.” Any capacity for critical thinking goes out the window, and the love affair begins. Who were we to argue with cliché?
“La Casa Azul” (The Blue House) was made for us. Tucked away on the edge of a village in the Axarquía and yet just 15 minutes from the coast, the house was, in estate agent’s lingo, full of unique features. The previous owner, Miguel, an artist, had worked for five years restoring and adorning the eighty-year old property and turning it into a pink and blue and yellow maze of interconnecting rooms and Aladdin’s cave patios. Everywhere you looked he’d left his artwork and his personality: a Gaudí-style pond, made from fragments of broken tiles; pebble-dash floors laid with mosaics of animals, birds and Egyptian Gods; a naked lady on a tablet of clay embedded on a bright-yellow wall; and over the entrance to his crumbling work room, a rusty old hammer and sickle.
Inside, a lot of work still needed to be done. The rooms were dark and damp, but so full of, well, character, with their daring colour scheme, wooden beams, open fireplaces and walls a metre thick. Not forgetting, of course, the charming old-fashioned locks, and tiny shuttered windows out of which, I now realise in growing despair, you could hardly throw a pillow, never mind a mattress.
So, what to do? The church clock strikes nine. I’m going to be late. My boss will be furious. But better late than trapped until Francisco gets home at 3 pm. I consider jumping. I’ll probably break my leg on the very weathered, very hard paving stones below. In which case, I won’t make it to work, but at least I’ll be able to crawl to the phone and explain why.
There is another option. To my left, up several steep steps is the blue patio. With its profusion of threshing boards, wheat sieves, mirrors, tiles, plates, plants, candelabras, earthenware pots and snoozing cats, this is the “heart” of the house, the outside living room that connects the two buildings and leads down to yet another layer of terraces, fruit trees and hidden treasures. It also looks out across onto an almond-treed hillside. You would hardly guess you were in a village, but from my vantage point I can just see the street that runs below. Where the rubbish bins are. Here goes. I lean out, clear my throat and yell: “Soc-CORR-oooo. A-YÜ-da-meeee. Estoy en la casa azul.” Help me. Please. Over and over again. Surely someone will hear me and come to my rescue. Nada. Either everyone has walls as thick as ours, they’ve all gone out; or they’re shaking their heads at the arrival of another lunatic guiri to the village.
Finally, our three cats stir from a hard morning’s slumber up on the blue patio on the comfy chairs we’ve so considerately provided for them. They stretch and yawn, take a few steps, view me with a mixture of detached curiosity and disdain, and slump back into inaction.
I’m getting desperate, and losing my voice. My bladder is bursting. It’s now 9.30. The phone starts ringing. My boss, no doubt. Where am I? What’s going on? I no longer care. I just want out.
Exhausted by my efforts, I slump back on the bed, a hefty, rustic affair with an old gate for a headboard and a wooden frame nailed onto four wooden blocks.
Silence. But not quite. Tap-tap, chisel-chisel. They’re at it again, the wood-eating creatures we’ve recently detected (heard but not seen) inside the front right bed “leg”. Suddenly, it comes to me. The bed! This is the moment you’re glad you’ve read the entire Enid Blyton canon of famous fives, secret sevens and naughty schoolgirls. I know, Julian, let’s rip up an old sheet, tie it together and scale down the wall. Well done, George, old girl.
I find an old sheet, get to work on my reef knots, and secure it to the termite-free block.
I pull on an old tracksuit and a pair of trainers, drag the bed closer to the window, and prepare for my descent. Getting out bum first is a struggle. What jolly fun!
Clinging onto the ledge, I gradually put all my weight on the sheet. The bed doesn’t budge, the knots hold, and I slide, scrape, jolt down the wall, breaking pipes, banging limbs and fending off bougainvillea on the way.
I collapse in a heap on the ground and burst into tears. One of the cats strolls over, and in a rare show of affection, licks my right foot.
A year has now passed since the Colditz escape. My boss forgave me, but I quit anyway. We haven’t changed the lock and still have just the one key. We like living dangerously. The life-saving termite bed, however, has had its worst-affected limb amputated, and a “new” one nailed in its place. Just in case, we’ve moved it into the spare bedroom (guests, you have been warned). We also now have a fabulous en suite bathroom, all blue and white and lemony, with terracotta floors, lattice-work doors and painted water pipes snaking round the walls like lines on the Tube map. So when I, sorry, if I ever, accidentally lock Francisco in the bedroom, at least he’ll have running water and a loo.
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This article first appeared in Living Spain, November / December 2005