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A Place in the Sun

Thursday, 26th January 2012

Categories: Moving Stories

Author: Peter Barry

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition

Written by Alyson Hilbourne

 “For goodness sake put down your paper and listen to me for once in your life!” snapped Barbara.

“Mmm…” The paper rustled with a sound like dry leaves as Doug moved it towards the kitchen table, continuing to skim the report on Liverpool’s game with Chelsea.

Didn’t he listen to her every day? He could tell from the tone that Barbara was about to set the day’s agenda.  If only he were allowed the small luxury of finishing the paper he wouldn’t mind doing the jobs she found for him, but sitting down to read seemed to be the catalyst that set Barbara off.  Well, one of the catalysts if he was honest.

He left the football report on the open side.  He tried to continue reading but without his glasses it was too far away. He’d have to finish the story at lunchtime.  If he was allowed. 

“I’m listening.”

 “I’ve bought a vine to put in by the pergola. We can train it to grow up and over the top.”

We? Thought Doug. I’ll be the one balancing on the stepladder getting the tips to stay on the wooden frame rather than reaching for freedom. He shuddered.

“It needs to go in today or it will die with the roots trapped in that bag.”

“Well why did you buy it so early?  You know the pergola isn’t finished yet.” Doug muttered.

“Nothing is finished is it? The house looks like a building site, because you sit around reading the paper, don’t you!”

With that Barbara flounced out of the kitchen.

“So much for retirement!” Doug flung the words after her, keeping his voice low so she wouldn’t hear. “So much for a place in the sun.”

He worked harder here than he had done at home. He glanced at his watch. 8.30 am. The bright sunlight woke them early each day, and Barbara couldn’t go back to sleep, so she was up and looking for jobs for him to do. Glancing wistfully at the newspaper Doug eased himself to his feet.

He trudged out to the garden, collecting his shovel on the way.  The sky was clear blue and cloudless. It would be another scorching day. 

“The place needs a swimming pool,” he’d said when they first looked at the property.

“Wouldn’t it be lovely to spend the day by a pool?” Barbara agreed.

He had spent the first few months digging a pit, but the ground was so hard he had had to rent a little digger to do the job.  They were waiting for the company to deliver and install the moulded shape they had chosen.  The garden needed some trees too, for shade.  The builders had left it with nothing. They had stripped out the gnarled olive trees that had grown here and replaced them with building rubble.  Builders were just the same in Spain as in England.

Doug pushed the shovel into the dry soil and stamped down. There was about as much give as in bank vault door. Barbara didn’t appreciate the work involved in her grand ideas.

Within minutes sweat was running down Doug’s face, and his shirt was sticking to him as tightly as a wetsuit.  He stood for a moment and ran his hand down his spine, arching the ache from his back.

He heard a car in the distance and shaded his eyes from the sun.  Maybe it was the estate agent about to show someone round.  The current economic situation meant most of the houses on the small estate were still vacant and the place had an air of dereliction.

“Have you finished?”

How did Barbara know as soon as he stopped for a moment?  Doug wiped his brow.  What sixth sense brought her out as soon as he had a rest?

“Just having a rest.  The ground’s hard.  It’s so dry.”

“Just so long as it goes in today.  We need shade for the summer.”

“I know, I know.  But my back still aches from the pool.”

“Mmm.” Barbara lips thinned and she turned and disappeared back inside. 

Give me a break, thought Doug.  He was too old for all this physical work.  His body was screaming in revolt.  His back hurt, his hands had calluses, and today was stinking hot already.  He was tired of it, he decided.  A little frisson of rebellion was snaking round his body and poking sharply at his mind.

He longed to be back in England.  At least the house was the way she wanted it and when it was dark and wet in winter Barbara hadn’t forced him out in the garden.  He’d be able to read the paper in peace there.

The sound of the car had gone and there was silence.  High in the sky Doug could see the vapour trail from a plane.  He wondered if the people on board were making their way to a destination in the sun.  Days at the beach or eating lunch in a sleepy village watching the locals market shopping and sharing a leisurely beer with friends.  That’s what he’d imagined Spain would be like.

Staring at the barren garden, with its large hole, he wondered why he had come.  At one time retirement meant joining the allotment society and entering roses in the garden show. Then Barbara’s sister had bought a place in Croatia and Barbara had come up with the idea they should buy a place in the sun.

Doug tapped his spade experimentally around in the soil.  None of it was any looser to dig.

Doug sank the blade down into the ground again, and was rewarded with a small trickle of dust.  He measured the bundle of roots with his eye and then the depth of hole.  Still a long way to go. He sighed. He could be sitting on his allotment guarding his roses against green fly and passing the time of day with his neighbours. 

He shoved the spade sharply back into the soil. He was too old for this.

Ten minutes later Doug straightened his aching back again and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. 

Barbara looked out of the doorway.

Her face puckered as she regarded the hole. 

“It’s in the wrong place.”

Doug stared at her. 

“No, it’s not.  You told me to put it in the corner of the pergola.  It can climb up the support and spread out across the beams. That’s what you wanted.”

“Yes, but I wanted it planted in the corner over there.  I was going to put something pretty and flowering in the front, so we can see it when we are sitting.”

If we are ever allowed to sit, thought Doug bitterly.

“Anyway you’ve put it inside the post but the decking goes there!”

“No!  You want decking. I’m quite happy to lay paving slabs. Much easier, and they don’t need treating like the wood will.”

“Decking would look much better and the vine has to go on the outside. You’d better start a new hole over there,” Barbara sniffed.

She pointed firmly at the far corner.

“It won’t make any difference if it is here.  You can put the flowers in the other corners.”

“No, it has to be outside so the decking can go to the edge.”

Doug threw down the shovel. 

“Well I’ll do it after lunch then.”

“You never get anything finished! The whole place is a series of unfinished projects …”

“And whose fault is that? You keep coming up with new things for me to do. I work harder here than I ever did in England.  I’ve waited fifty years to get to this and my idea of heaven at the moment would be to sit in a deck chair and read the paper in the sun.”

“Deck chair? I want some nice teak furniture for this pergola!”

Oh, great, thought Doug.  Some straight-backed schoolroom-type seating, nothing he could feel at ease in.

He shouldn’t have come. He should have put his foot down and told her he didn’t want to move away from England. Their house was moulded like a pair of bedroom slippers. But Barbara had thrown away the three-piece suite, the garden furniture, many of his clothes, books, records, and things so they could fit into this smaller place. He didn’t like the institutional tiled floors or the great expanse of windows. And he particularly hated the endless list of jobs that kept him busy.

Why did they need a pergola for goodness sake! What was wrong with a patio?

Doug straightened his back and took a deep breath. All he wanted was to read the paper in peace.

He turned to go inside.

“Doug.  Doug!  Don’t walk off when I’m talking to you.  Where are you going?  I want this vine in before it dies! Doug, DOUG!  You come back …”

Was this the pattern for the rest of his life? A wave of cold panic washed over him, and Doug shivered.

He turned back, picked up the shovel and hefted it.

“Doug, I …err …!”


As the sun set later in the day, Doug stood up and rested his back. He had six large flagstones in place and the man in the town had promised to deliver the rest by truck tomorrow.  He looked at the slabs. Yes, he decided.  They were just fine and the rest would be much easier to lay than decking. He wouldn’t need such a deep hole as he had dug this afternoon.

Barbara would hate them.  But it didn’t matter now.

He stood the new deck chair with the red and white candy cane stripes on the stones.  She wouldn’t approve of that either.  Then he eased down into it, wriggled comfortably and opened the paper at the sports page. As the sun set Doug stared out over the bare earth and the hole ready for the pool. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe it he could get comfortable here and call it ‘home’.

It was just as well there wasn’t anyone else on the estate at the moment.  But Doug was an optimist. The economy would pick up and the houses would sell. Then he would meet people and find friends to share a beer with.

Meanwhile he and Barbara could both enjoy a place in the sun and they could both rest in peace.

Written by Alyson Hilbourne

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition