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Clarissa's Warning

Clarissa's Warning

Book excerpt

Buying a Dream

Everyone has their price. It is my father's favourite saying. He is a used-car salesman turned property developer. I am neither of those things. But when I read in a local newspaper that the owner of the house of my dreams was intent on demolition I took swift action. I tossed sanity into the Jetstream and, in a single if complicated move, threw my all into saving that house.

In truth, not a house, it was nothing that could be called a home, the building – not much more than sections of stone wall and roof – holding on through its own tenacity, little left to brace against a relentless wind. For the ruin was located not among the folds of green in my home county of Essex, nor in any other quarter of bucolic pasture, but on a flat and dusty plain in desert dry Fuerteventura, an island I had been visiting each year for my annual holiday.

I wasn't entirely devoid of common sense. My ruin was situated in the inland town of Tiscamanita, a safe distance from beach-crazed revellers yet not so far off the beaten track as to be isolated and remote. The island was desolate enough without secreting myself away in one of its many barren and empty valleys. In a well-established village, I would have everything I required for a comfortable life, secure in the knowledge that there were others nearby if I needed them. As a single woman used to living in a bustling English town, one had to think of these things.

The troubles began the moment I decided to act. The former owner of my beloved ruin, the gentleman poised with his wrecking ball, had not been difficult to identify. His name was mentioned in the same newspaper article, the Fuerteventura journalist at pains to detail some of the recent ownership history. The various genealogical details meant nothing to me. I could read Spanish well enough—I've been learning for years—but I had no understanding of Spanish nobility, and I lacked a deep knowledge of Fuerteventura's colonial history. In the age of information technology, when business deals could be conducted remotely with a few mouse clicks and the odd signature here and there, nothing might have been simpler than purchasing a property overseas. There were websites talking prospective buyers through all the legal requirements, pitfalls and traps. Were it not for the fact that the possessor of my coveted dream home resided somewhere in mainland Spain and had he not been bent on using the property for whatever development aspirations he may have held dear, the purchase would have sailed through to completion in a few months.

The first complication was locating the owner's address. Entering the name in a few online searches revealed his business interests. With those scrawled in my notebook, I hired a lawyer to make the initial contact and establish my credentials: I, Claire Bennett of Colchester, a humble bank teller by profession until my fortunes turned on the numbers of a lottery ticket and I found myself astonishingly well-off.

Possessing all that wealth had taken possession of me, given me the will to leap, to take a chance. The greater part of me remained shocked I had the courage to go through with it.

Much to my chagrin, the owner, Señor Mateo Cejas, responded to my inquiry with a cool and firm refusal. The ruin was not for sale. Well, I knew that. The local government, in a fit of guilt over letting so many old buildings fall into ruin, had deemed the dwelling of special interest and already made an offer and it was declined. A full account of the frustrations of various officials and the local community were felt by the writer of the newspaper article who shared their view.

I suspected Señor Cejas opposed the building's transformation into yet another island museum, the restoration of a traditional windmill in Tiscamanita already serving the purpose. Or perhaps he had in mind the construction of holiday lets on the substantial parcel of land. It was the sort of plan my father, Herb Bennett of Bennett and Vine, would have had in mind. Demolish and rebuild. Sell at a premium to investors keen to rent out to holidaymakers; developers couldn't lose. They were an inexorable breed, prepared to play a long game. No doubt Cejas would have waited until the walls collapsed to rubble then the government would have given in and granted a demolition permit. That Cejas may have had a deeper, more complex reason for wanting to erase the structure didn't enter my mind.

My father tried to talk me out of my plans. He took to phoning me in the evenings when he knew I was watching Kevin McCloud, and he would go on and on about how there were a million better uses for my winnings. I would hold the phone away from my ear and let him rant until he ran out of advice.

I was immutable. I had passed by that ruin numerous times on my drives down the island's backroads and grown fascinated by it. I stopped one time and took a photo. Over the years, I had taken an abundance of photos of the ruins littering the island, but I had that one blown up and framed and it hung above the fireplace in my living room. I would stare at it every day, the image becoming for me a focus of wishful thinking, fervent at times, a potent symbol of longing for a different sort of life to the one I was stuck with. Until I won the lottery, that was the nature of my desire.

One very large deposit into my bank account and I was no longer stuck where I was. I had freedom and that freedom entered my life like a lightning bolt, destabilising me to my core. Suddenly, I couldn't imagine doing anything else with my life. Out of all the old dwellings falling to ruins on the island—a combination of lack of interest, strict restoration regulations, apathy and the ease of building with concrete blocks—I had chosen to save that one, like a child with her nose pressed to a sweet-shop cabinet, her pointy finger tapping the glass.

The stubborn Señor Cejas had not come across the likes of Claire Bennett, a woman fixated on a dream, a woman prepared to offer far in excess of the already overly inflated amount offered by the government. Initially, I offered the four hundred thousand Euros they had. It was declined. Four-fifty. Declined. I upped the offer in increments of fifty thousand, the tone of my lawyer's letters to Cejas increasing in indignation, his letters to me in exasperation, until at last we agreed on a sum. Six hundred thousand Euros and I had my grand design.

By the time I received word my offer had been accepted, I had already relinquished my position as clerk at the bank. I resigned the moment I knew I was rich and would never have to work again if I was sensible with my money. It was with considerable relief that I walked out of my branch for the last time, saying goodbye to the only career I had ever known.

For twenty years I had endured that cloistered environment, dealing on a daily basis with deposits and withdrawals, mortgages and loans, and with those incapable of managing their finances, one way or another. I preferred the pre-Internet days when we had to write in passbooks. Even in 2018, there was always one for whom internet banking was unfathomable. Often, they were old, but not always. Or there were those who used telephone banking but couldn't recall their customer reference number or pin, or the answers to any of the security questions they themselves had created, or even the balance in any of their accounts. They would come into the branch to get their account reinstated after it had been suspended. They would rant about that little injustice as though the bank had forced their hands beneath the teller screen and guillotined their fingertips, then they would go on to take an age making a number of simple transactions and I would imagine a steel plate descending with force to cut them off from breathing their disgusting germs through the Perspex.

When that type of customer surveyed the bank staff, they inevitably chose me, kindly Claire, to dump a potent mix of outrage and desperation on, and I would look at them coolly and explain that internet banking was really very easy and it would put them in control of their own banking and they wouldn't need to come out in all weathers and wait in a long queue to do what would take all of two minutes seated comfortably in the warm and the dry with a nice mug of cocoa. Many a time a disgruntled customer argued they were keeping me in a job and I responded inwardly with, I wish you wouldn't, because I didn't want the job. In fact, I loathed it. I had applied twenty years before only because back then it was the late 1990s and Blair was in power after years of economic recession and jobs were hard to come by and finance seemed to be the new god and I, like many others, believed things would only get better. I was fresh out of school and banking was the place to be. But not in Colchester.

Banking was never my dream. The world of finance was all about numbers, whereas I had achieved a good grade in A level English, which I found fascinating, History, which I adored, and General Studies, the latter due to my quiz loving father insisting I went with him every Wednesday to the local pub's trivia night. He would sink a couple of pints of Directors and I would sit on a lemonade and a packet of pork scratchings and I acquired a sizeable array of seemingly irrelevant facts. Highly relevant, they turned out to be, when it came to sitting the General Studies A level, a course cleverly designed to weed out the riff raff from achieving enough high scoring A levels for entry into the most prestigious universities.

When it came time for me to choose a career, my dad shunned all notions of university, especially in the humanities and the arts, describing those courses as dead ends.

There was no mother to argue my case. She passed away in the summer of 1985, when I was seven. I did what any obedient daughter would do in the absence of alternatives, I secured a job at the local bank. On my last day, I handed in my uniforms and went home via the Indian takeaway and the off licence to celebrate.

My house, a humble abode set halfway down a row of drab and poky terraced houses on Lucas Road, sold in a fortnight. As the settlement of the sale and the purchase went through I felt as though I had rubbed Aladdin's lamp and was about to be transported to paradise on a magic carpet.

The only other person with a vested interest in my life is Aunt Clarissa. She is my mother, Ingrid's older sister, a retired psychologist with a predilection for all things occult. She played a vital role in my upbringing after Ingrid died. A robust, no-nonsense woman with an affection for deep colours and aromatic smells, Aunt Clarissa exposed me over the years to Ouija, tarot, palmistry, enneagrams and her mainstay, astrology. I took little interest in any of it, for the occult seemed to me to be built up on spurious associations and make believe. Yet I could not deny that through it, my aunt was uncannily accurate when it came to seeing beneath the surface of people to their deeper, darker motives. I ascribed this talent to her training as a psychologist, but she insisted her perceptions were entirely the result of the occult. Not being one to argue, I took a passive, accepting role in her company, humouring her for the sake of our relationship. When I let her know I had bought a property on Fuerteventura and was about to move to the island, she invited herself over for morning coffee.

I was getting a tray of white chocolate and raspberry muffins out of the oven when the doorbell rang.

'Smells marvellous,' she said as we dodged by packing boxes on our way through to the kitchen, where she perched on a stool.

She was a stout and big-boned woman with thick and wiry hair framing a keen yet welcoming face. Those perspicacious eyes of hers followed me about the room as I attended to the muffins. Then she rummaged in her bag and extracted a sheet of paper protected by a plastic sleeve.

Without wasting much time on pleasantries, she said she had punched my birth details into an online astrology site that calculated relocation charts. The idea being, she said, that the angles of a birth chart can be adjusted to the new location. Indeed, the whole of a person's natal chart can be superimposed on the globe in a series of straight and wavy lines, providing an enormous source of fun and intrigue for astrologers and holidaymakers alike. Clarissa had explained it to me once before. She was a big fan. I was sceptical.

As I poured the coffee and put muffins on plates, Clarissa said, 'I am not sure how to tell you this, but I thought I'd better warn you. In fact, seeing this,' she pointed at my relocated chart, 'I wish you'd told me before you went ahead and bought the place. Has it all gone through?'

'It has.'

'You wouldn't consider selling? No, I suppose not. Silly question.'

Repressing my irritation, I stared at her inquiringly.

'Well, you see, the thing is,' and she pointed at the lines and glyphs, 'relocating to Fuerteventura puts Neptune on your Nadir.'

'And?'

'Well, Neptune also squares your relocated Ascendant. As if that were not caution enough, you have Moon and Saturn both in the twelfth house, the house of sorrows.'

'I meant, what does it all mean?'

She lifted her gaze to the ceiling. 'Typical Leo Moon.'

'I'm sorry I have a Leo Moon. Please, tell me.'

'The Neptune placement will leave you open to deception on the home front, at the very least. It really is one of the most difficult placements when it comes to buying a home. Unless you are opening a spiritual retreat, I suppose.'

'Do you really see me doing that?'

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