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Donkeys on my Doorstep excerpt

By Anna Nicholas

Excerpt From Chapter One

Poetic Justice

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At the far end of the orchard a white bird, possibly a dove, appears to be caught in the higher branches of a lemon tree. It’s seven in the morning and I am standing at the bedroom window of our finca in Mallorca in yawning mode but the sight of those limp wings fluttering helplessly from behind a clump of leaves has me wide awake. I’m puzzled. How on earth has a bird got stuck in one of our trees? It’s surely not the sort of thing birds generally do. Now, if that were Orlando up there, our terminally dim though lovable grey cat, I wouldn’t turn a hair. Despite my having to rescue him several times from the clutches of a predatory shrub he continued to try his feline paws at more ambitious and vertically challenging leafy projects. It was on the spikes of the enormous cactus by the front lawn that he finally came a cropper. Now the only thing he tends to navigate is the duvet on our bed. My husband, Alan, commonly nicknamed ‘the Scotsman’, is running water from a tap in the bathroom, and is none too happy to be summoned mid shave. He joins me at the window, a half-robed Santa with a frothy white beard and a razor poised in the air.

‘What’s up?’
‘I think a bird’s stuck in a tree.’
He pulls open the window, allowing cool autumnal air to waft into the room. I give a little shiver. Summer is certainly over even though September has not quite past. He surveys the dewy orchard beyond with some impatience until his gaze rests on the tree with the bird. He leans out of the window to take a closer look.
‘You’re right, although I think I can see several wings fluttering. Maybe it’s a group orgy of doves?’

I tut. ‘At this time of the morning?’
‘It has been known. Why don’t you get the binoculars?’
With some impatience I don a pair of old flip-flops and head for the stairs. There’s only one way to find out what’s going on up in that tree. As I leap over the assault course of cats on the staircase, Minky, brother Orlando and the queen of the house, Inko, I find a loud chorus of felines on the patio beyond the back door. These are the local feral cats that have recently formed a Wailing Wall day and night outside the kitchen. These are the local feral cats that have formed a Wailing Wall day and night outside the kitchen. Rather like a fugitive under fire one has to prepare oneself for the onslaught when exiting the house, zigzagging through their midst and clapping loudly until out of the danger zone.

I’ve christened them all and, much to the Scotsman’s fury, I’ve been known to slip them the odd morsel. There’s Scraggy the tabby, albino Baby Boris, his black brother, Demonic Damian, a stripy bruiser named Tiger the Terrible, and Tortoiseshell, a flirty female with Cleopatra eyes and smoky pelt. Now as I make my way hurriedly across the back terrace, clearing the cats from my path as I go, they let up a terrible din which has the Scotsman huffing and puffing from the open upstairs window.

‘Damned cats!’ he curses to the breeze.
I descend the stone staircase into the field and scythe a path through the wet grass, my feet slippery with dew and my nightdress damp at the hem. I pass the corral on my left and see that Salvador, our indignant cockerel, is already on the march. He lifts his head and turns it right and left in small jerky moves, his small eyes blinking fretfully as he steals a backward glance at his uppity harem behind. Last year our hens, Minny and Della, disappeared one night without trace. There were no feathers in evidence so I like to think they made a break for freedom and are living happily on some other paradise isle frequented by holidaying fowl. In truth, a tear in the corral netting indicated that they were carried off by a genet but I don’t like to dwell on that. Salvador now has some new feathered female companions, a trio of sisters christened Goneril, Regan and Cordelia.

There’s a good reason why he watches his back. It’s only Cordelia who cuts him a little slack while her bossy sisters give him a good pecking and an earful if he oversteps the mark by attempting t snaffle their grain or shadowing them too closely.

I reach the lemon tree and peer up through the branches. The white fluttering wings have taken a new form; that of paper. I potter off and find our wide, old orchard ladder leaning against a wall and drag it over. Carefully, I climb to the top rung and hoist myself on to a thick branch joining the trunk. The papers are almost within my grasp when a party of curious ants tickle first one then the other leg, prompting me inadvertently to shake both flip-flops to the ground. I lose my balance and the ladder goes tumbling after them. I lunge at the tree trunk and curse my stupidity. Now I’m going to have to take my chances at leaping to the ground barefooted. There’s a loud rustling in the long grass and heading purposefully towards me across the orchard are the Scotsman, clad in pyjamas, and Ollie, fully dressed in his school uniform. How humiliating is this?

‘I always wondered what a tree hugger looked like,’ sniggers the Scotsman.
‘Why are you always so impetuous?’ huffs Ollie.
‘That’s a big word for a twelve-year-old at this time of the morning.’ I say.
He narrows his eyes. ‘Give me a break.’
‘So it’s not a passionate trio of doves?’ asks Alan.
‘No, just some sheets of paper that have got wedged in the branches.’
‘How boring,’ sighs Ollie.
He hauls the ladder up and perches it against the trunk. ‘Can I come up?’
‘There’s hardly room, Ollie, and besides, you’d better get ready for school.’
He hunches his shoulders. ‘It’s such a waste of time. I could do more useful things at home.’

‘Such as?’ I say.
‘Sorting my stone collection, getting my football cards in order or trading my coins on the Internet.’
Alan tousles his hair. ‘All in good time.’
He shakes himself loose and, muttering, heads back to the house. Alan steadies the ladder until I manage to grab the papers and make my descent. I slip on my flip-flops and straighten out the sheets of crumpled paper. There are four pages in total, all a little damp and streaked with tears of maroon ink. The blurred writing that remains is tiny and compact, elegant and elaborate and written in Catalan.
‘Bother, I can’t make out a word. I’ll have to consult the dictionary.’
Alan looks over my shoulder. ‘What is it? A letter of some kind?’
I shrug. ‘It’s hard to tell. I’ll just have to try to decipher what little handwriting remains.’

He removes a pair of secateurs from his pocket and begins snipping fruit off some nearby trees. ‘Might as well pick some lemons while we’re at it.’
I’m trying to make head or tail of the small writing when he calls to me, pointing at the far wall.
‘Come over here! There are more sheets of paper stuck in the brambles.’
I stride through the long grass, a pale sun now glimmering overhead, and see to my delight that the Scotsman has a good clump of sheets in his hand. Better still, the writing appears to be intact, probably because they have been sheltered by the wall.

‘It’s a little voyeuristic to read other people’s mail, isn’t it?’ he asks as I take them brusquely from his grasp.
‘Well, finders keepers, and besides, they are on our property.’
He laughs. ‘Oh well, I suppose it’ll be good practise for your Catalan. The paper’s quite thin and yellowed. These haven’t been written recently.’
What sort of historical treasure might we have stumbled upon on our very own patch? I leaf through the pages and with growing excitement see that the first random page I study is dated 26 November 1936 in tiny Roman numerals – the year that the Spanish Civil War began. Since early childhood I have had a passion for antique books and historical letters and at one time was a collector. Alan holds a pile of lemons to his chest.

‘You’ve got a dangerous gleam in your eye, as if you’ve just found treasure.’
I fold the letters carefully and give him a wink. ‘I do believe I have.’
I gaze up at the towering Tramuntana mountain range beyond our land with its bald grey torso, bushy midriff of pine and holly oak trees and dense citrus and olive orchards at its feet. At this time of the morning when the sky turns from ink to a soft pallet of blue, diffusing pale light across the valley, I wonder if I have somehow stepped into a live canvas, rather like the children in the Mary Poppins film. I follow Alan slowly across the orchard, past the corral and back up the steps to the terrace. The swimming pool is a hive of activity. Tiny ripples of water scour the surface as if hit by raindrops but the culprits – or victims – are insects that every morning dive unwittingly to their deaths. I suppose if your entire life cycle lasts but a few days, it’s not such a bad way to go. Ollie appears, the corners of his mouth betraying evidence of my home-made chocolate mouse.
‘You’d better come quickly,’ he giggles, ‘Orlando’s just got stuck up the chimney.’

I’m huffing back up the track which leads to the finca, our stone built, country house, when I hear an urgent toot, toot, behind me. I pull over to the side, wondering why on earth I continue to assault my body with daily runs but there’s an inherent worry that if I stop, the whole thing might dissolve into blancmange. Besides, running a marathon each year, as I do, has meant that I can raise funds for one of my favourite charities so at least I know that it’s all for a good cause. I am currently training for the Athens marathon which I have been warned is somewhat challenging. Catalina leans out of her car window, the engine running. Her short, glossy dark hair is tousled and her brown eyes full of laughter
‘Hey! Crazy woman. Where you been this morning?’

I catch my breath. ‘Believe it or not, I’ve just been up to Fornalutx.’
She rolls her head back with laughter. ‘If you’d knocked on my door, I could have given you a lift!’
She elbows Miquela, the companion sitting in the passenger seat next to her. ‘She runs up to my house and runs back again. How mad is that?’
Miquela juts her head forward and gives me a grin.
‘Actually, Catalina, that’s the whole point of the exercise,’ I say.

She shakes her head and drives on ahead of me up to the house. This is Monday when Catalina, like a whirlwind, works her magic transforming our muddle of a home into a shiny, clean palace. Her army consists of bleach, washing powder, copious amounts of hot soapy water and all manner of brushes and floor cloths. In the last few months she has brought reinforcements in the form of Miquela, a cheery young mother of three from a nearby village. She is lean and willowy where Catalina is curvy and of moderate height. Catalina and I have been firm friends ever since the time she au-paired for my sister back in the UK, and it was thanks to her that the Scotsman and I originally decided to holiday in Mallorca.

That idyllic summer break inspired us to buy and renovate an old wreck of a finca in the Sóller Valley and when it was habitable we upped sticks from London for a new life in Mallorca. So, for the last eight years, I have happily subscribed to a dose of Catalina’s cheeriness on a Monday morning and her news-gathering skills which keep me abreast of gossip in the valley.

The front gate is wide open and Catalina’s car is parked wildly across the gravel as I trudge into the courtyard. The Scotsman hasn’t arrived back from dropping Ollie off at his school near the university but is due any time soon. I survey the wild profusion of blood-red bougainvillea that hangs in heavy bundles over our old rock wall, shedding silky sepals on to the gravel below. The dry and delicious tones of rosemary pervade the courtyard, mingling with the sweetness of the lavender. The front doors are thrown back and just as I am getting into my painful stretching routine, Catalina appears like a scowling fairy godmother, brush, not wand, in hand. Her eyes are narrowed and hands are placed firmly on hips. This means trouble.

‘What have you been doing with the chimney? Hi ha molta brutícia!’ It’s filthy!
‘Orlando climbed up it this morning and got stuck.’
She shakes her head. ‘There’s soot everywhere. That cat is a menace!’
‘I can help clear it up,’ I say lamely.

‘Per favor!’ Please! She chortles loudly and plods back to the kitchen.
I slip up the stairs, shower and head for my office. Miquela is doing battle with our sitting room on the top floor. Rugs have been draped over windowsills, cushions plumped and the vacuum cleaner, like a demonic Dalek, is being guided by Miquela about the room, gobbling up dust and spitting out errant marbles and sweet wrappers secreted under sofas and chairs by Ollie. I creep by and close the office door softly behind me. Glimpsing the large calendar above my desk, I note that I am due back in London in November. Despite my desire to cut loose from the frenetic world of public relations, I continue to commute back to the UK every month or so to meet with clients and catch up with staff in my Mayfair office. My dream is to find a like-minded agency with which to merge so that I can devote my time to setting up a cattery on our land and freelance writing, but it hasn’t proven easy so far. Rachel, MD of my PR company, and I, continue to keep tabs on potential buyers in the offing while carrying on with day-to-day business. Much as we have received business offers, none of them so far have fitted the bill.

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