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A Lizard In My Luggage Excerpt

By Anna Nicholas

Chapter One

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It’s noon. A fat gecko, its eyes as large as marbles, locks on to me with an unblinking stare as I grapple with a crude, rusty key, the size and weight of a small hammer, just above his head. I want him to move but he hugs the wall like a watchful Spider-Man, daring me to engage key with lock. I know it’s a male, a he, just by the way he surveys me. Everything in this country is machismo so why shouldn’t that include geckos with big ant guts? He’s looking disapprovingly at my bitten painted nails, orange kitten heels, fake designer handbag from a trip to Dubai, and thinking, for crying out loud, what’s a house like this doing with a woman like that? He’s a good psychologist too. He knows I don’t like insects, snakes, small, fast moving vertebrates and anything with multiple legs, hairy limbs and antennae. And exactly why am I faltering at the door? Am I seriously scared of a lizard? Get a grip. I push the key firmly in the lock. Simultaneously, the reluctant, portly custodian of the house shimmies up the door and ducks into a groove in the stone wall. Vanished into a smudge of darkness. Good riddance. I shudder and attempt to turn the key. It won’t shift and here I am, up a dirt track drive in the sort of heat that could melt bones and trigger tantrums. Cicadas are hissing accusingly at me from the grey contorted olive trees and a voyeuristic frog is peering over a discarded can in an old septic water tank, willing defeat.

This is no simple Yale or Banham lock. It is blackish and seigneurial, displaying a few distinguished brown spots of corrosion at the edges, and fashioned out of wrought-iron from centuries ago. However, the key, its faithful lifelong partner, is old and battered with age and unable to engage in happy union as once it might. I use the time-honoured practice of the short tempered and impetuous, and start kicking the door. It shudders but refuses to budge. Four hundred odd years of Spanish craftsmanship and solid oak are not going to give way to a petulant, hot and bothered Londoner with a blatant disregard for anger management.

There’s a strange humming in the distance, an angry, gnawing sound that grows louder until it soon explodes into a cloud of hot, powdery dust three feet from me. A young man with tight, black curly hair and a set of teeth and comely muscles normally reserved for matinee idols is silencing the engine of a motorbike and waving cheerfully at me. Oh God, who’s this? Do I have to share the humiliation of being incapable of opening my own front door with a total stranger, and a foreigner to boot? He saunters over to me with a look of concern and it’s not just for my sanity.

‘Is problem wees door, si?’ He sibilates his words smoothly, referring to me as senyorita, young lady, not the more matronly senyora, indicating that he’s either in public relations, an inveterate liar, or in need of good specs or possibly all three. Still, he speaks some English. This will at least spare him from having to endure my spoken Spanish which has only recently graduated from Teletubbies greetings to vocabulary worthy of the Peter and Jane books. To make matters worse, he is speaking in Mallorcan, the local dialect, which naturally poses even greater hazards for me.
‘Well, I can’t turn the key. It’s stuck. Can you try?’
‘No problema, senyorita. Is very old.’
In Mallorca nothing is a problem, until you have a problem. He wrenches the key round and it emits a squeal of anguish. Then with a quick kung fu arm movement he strikes at the door and it creaks open, allowing a shaft of ruby light to caress the marble floor. I throw him a gracious smile and push my sunglasses back over my hot, damp hair.
‘Sorry, who are you?’
‘Me? Oh, I friend of Miguel.’
And who is Miguel when he’s at home?
‘Miguel is friend of Joan who is brother of Jaume’.
The genealogy lesson doesn’t stop here. ‘Jaume’s grandfather was doctor.’
I resist the childish urge to say, ‘Doctor Who?’ and instead ask,
‘So who is Jaume?’
He looks bemused and shrugs his lean brown shoulders.
‘Jaume is builder. Jaume work on your house.’
Ah! Now, we’re getting there.
‘Do you work on my house?’
‘No, Jaume leave kettle in field. I get for him now and go.’
I’m about to start all over again in an attempt to learn his name but stop. There are times when to question further would result in entering what my family call the twilight zone, an enchanted territory in time and space where nothing can ever make sense. It’s a world of alphabetical letters in jumbled order, where cats wear hats and the distinctly odd becomes the norm. So should I discover that Jaume the Builder really is brewing Typhoo tea in the manner of his British counterparts in my field under the full strength of a fiery Mediterranean sun, I shall know not to question it.
I nod sagely at the young Adonis and leave him to amble off across the courtyard and down into the wasteland of a field with its towering weeds and sad bowed orange and lemon trees, splashed with mud and grime from countless assaults on the turf by tractors, diggers and lorries. I walk into the entrada, a large, semi-lit, blank white space smelling of damp paint and cicadas. How does a cicada smell? Like my entrada, that’s how. I clip-clop over to the arched doorway leading to the back garden and terrace. It is masked by heavy wooden shutters which surprisingly give way when I lift the wrought-iron levers. The sun engulfs me and I’m momentarily blinded, then deafened by a sudden blast from my handbag as the mobile phone bursts into song. I could throttle it but instead I trill in the way a public relations professional should, with a voice brimming with false enthusiasm.
‘Prudence! I was just thinking of you. I’ve literally just put the finishing touches to the brief and am about to wing it over to your office.’ That’s when I’ve actually written the wretched thing. ‘Tomorrow? No problem, I’ll e-mail it. Yes, it has turned cold, hasn’t it?’
She rings off without the faintest idea that I’m speaking to her from a sweltering, empty house in the mountains of a Spanish island. Has she completely forgotten about my move or relegated the information to the back of her mind? The thought amuses me. I feel like a naughty schoolgirl playing truant and yet the work will get done, just in a different location.

Prudence Braithwaite is the officious secretary of Michael Roselock of Roselock Fine Jewellery, a client on the edge of a nervous breakdown who has disbanded half his staff through debt and has weakly left her to run his ailing ship. Neither of them has a clue what she’s doing. Nor have I for that matter. Unnervingly, both persist in trying to embroil me in the mounting sagas of their company with daily hysterical calls that inevitably end with the fretful words, ‘What are we going to do?’ Much as I try to buoy them up, they’ve struck the iceberg and water’s seeping in. I sigh and hurl the slim little silver spy back into my bag with venom. I call it Judas because it always betrays me. In my opinion the maniac who invented mobile phones really should have been shot at prototype stage, preferably to the accompanying wail of a microchip pumping out a synthesised fugue.

My nameless friend pops his head round the front door, kettle in hand and yells ‘Adéu!’ so loudly it rebounds around the stark walls and vaulted ceilings and makes my heart thump. A minute later I hear the familiar whining sound of the bike tearing off up the track. Once again, I’m alone with the geckos and my many hidden detractors – living creatures that crawl and creep soundlessly in the undergrowth, observing my every move. I pop my shades back on and stride out into the sun, the insecure owner of a partially restored pile in a foreign country. Here, in the craggy northwest mountains of Mallorca, I feel light-years away from my flat in central London with the shuddering, creaky cabs passing my windows and the constant judder of coaches and lorries as they thunder by, night and day. The air is still and fragrant and the lisping cicadas with their monotone pulsating beat lure me into a state of momentary calm. The house is ancient, so old that we can only trace its lineage back three hundred years. It’s almost double that according to local oral tradition – neighbours, shopkeepers, bar owners and the elderly paisanos who eek out their days, playing cards and reminiscing with their friends in the town square. Word has it that over the centuries this finca played home to the local priests of our village church and was once a safe house during violent Moorish assaults on the island. During that troubled time it also served as a secret chapel for devout local parishioners, a sacred place for those in peril. Let’s hope the magic still works.

The view from the courtyard to the pinky-grey Tramuntana mountains is formidable if you can prise your gaze from the clutter on ground level, for the front of the house resembles a builders’ merchant’s, choking with boulders of yellow chalky stone, great planks of pine timber crushing small patches of yellowed weeds, wire tightly bound in prickly bales and sacks of cement spilling over on to the uneven ground in ugly ochre tinted piles. I listen for the mobile phone, now distracted by its muteness. Why isn’t anyone calling me? Have the phones gone down in the office back in London? Has my battery died? Surely someone, somewhere, simply must be trying to get hold of me and where is Alan, my hardy Scot? He and our son, Ollie, were supposed to have been here eons ago, leading a procession of removal vans from the town roundabout to the house. Admittedly this is no mean feat. This finca, our finca, is set amidst a bewildering labyrinth of winding roads and tiny narrow cobbled lanes, fields of olives, oranges and lemons and decoy houses that pop up along the way and bear a striking similarity to our own in shape or size of stone, but in fact belong to somebody else.

To add to the frustrations of the first-time visitor, the journey is beset with hazards of a Mallorcan kind: crater sized potholes from which gaping coloured pipes of an unknown nature spew forth, one-way signs which locals ignore but tourists don’t, spontaneously reversing water carriers and tractors, kamikaze mangy dogs and cats that leap gamely at moving vehicles, elderly senyoras, bundled like mummies in black swaddling who topple on to the road, their walking sticks raised in perpetual protest, and finally, garrulous locals. The latter is the real bummer. Mallorcans are oblivious to the time constraints of others. They will happily slam on the brakes in the middle of moving traffic to wave or gossip with a friend in a passing car or pop out to buy a loaf from the local supermercat, leaving the engine running, while you sit, exasperated in their wake, unable to move, impatiently awaiting their return. Horns will start blasting after five minutes but it’s all a good-natured game on the part of the locals and the offender, once armed triumphantly with bread stick, will return to the car to be greeted like a hero with wolf whistles, smiles and whoops, while the mystified foreigner looks on wretchedly, excluded from the fun but caught up in the inconvenience.

The removal vans are coming from Palma, Mallorca’s capital, and were due to arrive at eleven. Anticipating the disaster if we left them to their own devices up here in the mountains, we insisted on acting as scouts, leading them to the house. Therefore more than an hour or so ago Alan, Ollie and I sat hot and irritable in a sweltering hire car in a local lay-by waiting for them to arrive at the designated time. Foolishly we had not reckoned on Mallorca mañana time which means you arrive within an hour or so of the time you originally agreed. After thirty minutes of heated discussion with Alan about their whereabouts, I had recklessly insisted on getting some provisions on foot and walking back to the finca alone. It was a decision made hastily and under the influence of a sadistic sun. Alan had accused me of being ridiculously impetuous and likely to end up with severe sunstroke striding out, uncovered, in such heat.
Ignoring his entreaties, I scrambled out of my side of the car, observing a brief exchange of stealthy and complicit looks between Ollie and his father. Crossly, I had to accept that no sooner had I left than Alan would be puffing on one of his putrid cigars and brokering a deal with Ollie to keep shtum later. Despite my spirited lectures on the subject of smoking and its dire consequences, Alan defiantly continues his tobacco habit, albeit more sneakily and, where possible, away from my prying eyes. Rather like an accomplished thief, he is good at covering his tracks and removing evidence of the crime, but the odd cellophane wrapper trapped under a car seat or cloying odour of a recently puffed Cuban delight refusing to disperse, even with the most pungent of air fresheners, often betrays him.

I certainly needed some fresh air. So, mincing like a poodle at Crufts up the precarious, stony lane which leads to the house in my slingbacks, I had practically thrown myself at the front porch, expecting a heroine’s welcome from my husband and a dozen sympathetic and swarthy men carrying boxes. Instead I had met with the hostility of nature, a thousand beady eyes and rustling limbs hiding in the grasses, wall crevices and murky pond, glaring at this ill-equipped and fey female from an alien universe, daring to plunder their world.

This surely is the first time I have ever stood this still for so long in years. The last occasion must have been about aged six during the silent spell of a pass the parcel game. I’m not good at being slow. My sister always says I was born with the engine of a Porsche crammed into the body of a Mini. It’s true, I don’t like hanging around and I’m beginning to wonder what on earth I’ve done making this move to Mallorca. If I were in London now my ear would be superglued to an office phone, hands meanwhile tapping away on the computer keys, while I’d be mouthing instructions to someone in the office. There would be noise and manic activity, couriers arriving and taxi drivers barking down the intercom. A paper cup of cold Starbucks coffee would be perched on my desk, a blueberry muffin, hardly touched and stale, peeping out of a paper bag, ready for instant disposal in the bin. I worked it out one day, just for the hell of it. How much did I really spend at Starbucks? Way too much. Let’s just leave it at that.

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