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“Perpetuity”: a short story by Margaret Drabble

A tale of temptation, disappointment and breaking free, written exclusively for the New Statesman.

A tale of temptation, disappointment and breaking free, written exclusively for the New Statesman.

"Perpetuity" is a fine word and a long time. She stares at it now with dismay and admiration. How could they have been so foolish as to sign a document with the word perpetuity embedded in it? It had seemed so full of promise, the notion of perpetuity, offering in late middle age a prospect of a bright future, of sunny, happy days, of dazzling skies and sparkling seas, almost of eternal life. But what she had encumbered herself with was not eternal life but eternal debt. With debt beyond the grave.

So innocently the Faustian bargain had been struck, so lightly and so cheerfully. She remembers it clearly as she sits here in this dark,
windowless attorney's office with the Spanish papers on the table before her, waiting, yet again waiting. She prefers the Spanish attorney to the English bullyboys, but that's not saying much. They are all thugs and crooks, and she has had to work hard to outwit them.

So cheerfully and so accidentally had she and Robert embarked together on this now seemingly endless project, so charmed had they been by the bright light of the Canary Islands, by the modest friendliness of the islanders, by the lack of stress and by the auspicious climate. Their very first visit had been unplanned, a last-minute invitation from friends to join them for a week in the rented apartment they had taken for a month. "Do come," Bobby and Martin had messaged them, "it is heavenly, do come, there is lots of room, far too much room for us, the flights are
so cheap, you will love it here!" So off they had flown, pleased by the warmth of the invitation, a late-night, impulsive warmth but nonetheless appealing. They had flown off on a cramped and crowded little plane to Fuerteventura, an island of which they had never even heard, to join their old friends in the unknown and in those days very modest little port of Corralejo.

Fuerteventura, the grand adventure! They had had such fun, the four of them, walking on the white and golden beaches, watching the windsurfers and kite flyers, swimming in the green and turquoise bubbling sea, eating in little fish restaurants, drinking ice-cold beers by the club pool, taking the ferry to Lanzarote for a day, climbing a lichen-green-grey volcano to look at the view. There was an inner view into the volcano, down into the slopes of its crater, and a vast outer view from its summit over the wide Atlantic.

They were younger, of course, and much more adventurous. Even Robert was a good walker then.

They ate out for most of their meals, but Elsa had enjoyed shopping in the supermarket for their breakfasts of eggs and toast and jam, and for olives and nuts and little stuffed anchovies to accompany their pre-dinner glass of wine. She had always loved foreign shops, and although the stock of the little supermarkets of Corralejo was not very foreign and not very exciting, it made a change from Tesco and Sainsbury's back in Chichester, and one or two of her purchases were unexpectedly good. The eggs had no sell-by dates but they were of a wonderful freshness, visibly and indisputably free range, with yolks of a dark, rich orange-yellow that you do not find in England. The little ridged, dark-green cucumbers were delicious and so were the small tomatoes. And the gin and the vodka and the whisky were cheap, cheap, cheap.

Yes, they had had a happy week on their first visit to the islands, and were rather surprised that Bobby and Martin never went back. Bobby said she fancied Sicily for their next winter, more culture if less warmth, but Robert and Elsa returned like swallows to the sun. Their travel agent booked them into a hotel at Puerto del Carmen on Lanzarote, as they didn't think they had the initiative to find themselves an apartment as nice as the one Bobby had found, and it was very nice and very well run, though perhaps not quite as enjoyable as having a place that seemed like your own, where you could make your own coffee and scramble your own eggs. They went back to Corralejo on a day trip, for old times' sake, for last year's sake, and it was while they were waiting on the quay at Playa Blanca for the Fred Olsen ferry that the girl from Paradise Point approached them with her brochures and her business cards.

There were quite a few British and German touts on the islands in those days, offering excursions and camel rides and tattoos and timeshares. And there were also mysterious, handsome, sleek young Africans selling real leather handbags at bargain prices, and colourfully swathed women from Senegal who would plait and bead your hair and your grandchildren's hair as you sat on the front.

The girl from Paradise Point was very amusing. She chatted them up, asked them where they came from, said she'd visited Chichester Cathedral and the Roman mosaics of Fishbourne on a school journey. She noted that Elsa was reading the short stories of H G Wells, and claimed that her favourite author was George Orwell. She seemed a harmless young woman, with her short brown plaits, no doubt a student on a vacation job, open and tanned and sunny in her yellow shirt and her khaki, many-pocketed mountain shorts and stout leather sandals. She said that if they filled
in her questionnaire, they could win a free holiday. They demurred, but she pleaded. "Please," she said, "it's good for me. If you just fill it in, I get my commission, that's all you have to do. No obligation," she promised. She was really very nice.

They liked her, and they filled it in, and they thought no more about it until two months later, back home, when they had a phone call from Paradise Point saying that their name had come up in the lucky draw and they had won a week in the delightful new complex in fashionable Costa Teguise, which was even nicer than Puerto del Carmen. All they had to pay for was the airfare. The apartment was completely free. The details would be in the post, and Paradise Point and its staff looked forward to welcoming them in the autumn.

Elsa was rather sceptical about this offer and was surprised that Robert seemed willing to have a go. But willing he was. He was getting more reckless and enterprising as he approached old age and was sometimes quite unexpected in his behaviour. "What have we to lose?" he argued. "Even if it's a cement bunker or a Butlins chalet, we can check out and book ourselves into that hotel. There's no shortage of holiday accommodation on those islands. We can't go wrong. Let's go and see."

So they went. And it was, as the nice young woman and the chap on the phone had promised, delightful. It really could not have been nicer.
The only drawback was that they seemed to have let themselves in for some sales talk, and had to agree to allow a salesperson to come to their apartment on the morning of the third day of their visit to explain all the sales offers, and to agree to attend a promotional meeting on their final afternoon. But that seemed a small price to pay for a week in such an unexpectedly pretty spot. The twin-bedded bedroom was comfortable, the turquoise-tiled bathroom neatly functional, the kitchenette with its microwave modern and the living room furnished in pleasing shades of blue and green, the colours of the island. It had a good sofa with firm sponge cushions, a coffee table, a dining table, an armchair, all you could possibly need. The design was compact, the lighting well designed for reading. A framed print of a red Marc horse with a blue mane in a golden landscape hung inoffensively -- no, more than inoffensively, attractively -- on the wall above the TV.

The swimming pool was heated, and mauve-grey collared doves and chirpy brown sparrows sipped from time to time from the curving rim of its pale blue waters. The carefully planted gardens were meticulously tended by a small army of smiling men in green overalls. Cactus and palm, hibiscus and jacaranda and a striking variety of euphorbia flourished. Their ground-floor apartment had its own little area of garden, in which flowering shrubs, some of them unknown to Elsa, rose from a bed of black volcanic ash. Paradise Point was a fair name for a fair place.

The salesperson was more professional than the young woman with the plaits who had accosted them last year on the quay by the Fred Olsen ferry but she, too, was very pleasant. She was blonde, tanned, slim, smartly dressed, well spoken. She told them she had lived in the Canaries for five years, having come first for her health (she had a lung condition), but now, being well, she had stayed on. (Elsa and Robert were not so sure she was well, as she coughed, discreetly, from time to time, but they needed no persuading that the climate was, as she said, exceptionally benign.)

She praised, but not extravagantly, the virtues of the island, of the resort, of the complex itself, and recommended one or two restaurants and outings that she thought they might enjoy. She told them a little of the recent history of the island: it was the only one of the Canaries on which high-rise buildings were not permitted, which is why it retained so much character, so much (although she did not use the word) class.
She did not outstay her welcome. She left them some brochures and schedules to examine, and then they all pleasantly shook hands and she went her way.

Elsa and Robert studied the brochures, which Judy had said would outline the advantageous nature of the offer proposed: it was not a timeshare (timeshares had a bit of a bad name already, they knew that) but a week of a freehold, with proper deeds and a proper contract to be drawn up by an attorney in Arrecife. They would be free to resell whenever they wanted, or to keep it in the family and leave it to their children.

They were quite tempted. A week a year in the sun seemed an attractive proposition. They had both worked hard all their lives, and now, nearing official retirement (not that they would ever fully retire, they hoped), they could afford and felt they deserved a little, regular annual holiday.

The atmosphere of the final sales pitch on the last afternoon was heady and hilarious. A dozen or so holidaymakers (were they all freeloaders, or were some of them paying guests?) were gathered together in a conference room and shown photographs of other developments, of the future plans for Paradise Point itself, of a new extension that would offer an easier walk and better access to the sea. The team of sales executives was encouraging and upbeat, as one would expect, but also responsive and reassuring, answering questions thoughtfully, responsibly. The only pressure seemed to be peer pressure, for, after three-quarters of an hour, one middle-aged couple put their hands up and declared themselves. Yes, they would buy! They already owned a week on Tenerife but they thought Paradise Point was pleasanter, quieter, more select, better managed. They would add this week on to Tenerife and do a Canary fortnight a year, a two-island holiday.

The team was delighted and the fellow holidaymakers clapped and cheered. A strangely shaped bottle of sparkling Spanish wine was produced and they all toasted the purchase, and by this time Robert and Elsa knew they were going to make an offer, too. And they did.

Another bottle of the cheap sparkling arrived, and four glorious, expensive complementary white bathrobes monogrammed in gold. There was much laughter and many congratulations, and Robert and Elsa felt sporting as they produced their chequebooks (there were still cheques in those days) and paid a deposit. The full price was only a couple of thousand each and would be well within their means. They pocketed an official-looking, stamped receipt, and were assured that the paperwork and the deeds would soon follow. Judy would be so happy, the chief sales rep said; she had so enjoyed talking to them, and would look forward to welcoming them back next year.

They were still pleased with themselves as they flew home, although they did wonder, at times, what they had let themselves in for.

It was all a bit of a gamble and they might have lost a few hundred pounds; but then, they had had a free week already, hadn't they? They
soon found there was nothing to worry about. Within three weeks, the documentation of their purchase arrived in Chichester, and it all looked regular and above board, even though some of it was in Spanish. They paid the balance with confidence.

Everything worked smoothly, just as Judy had promised, although, sadly, they never saw Judy again. She had relocated to another island, they were told. They feared she was dead, although nobody liked to say so. Judy's absence apart, all at Paradise Point was well. The maintenance was all she had said it would be, and "their" apartment and the communal gardens were cherished. They visited some of the places Judy had recommended, and thought of her gallantry as they ate their prawns in garlic and their salted, roasted peppers. Over the years, they explored all of the coastline that was accessible by car. They walked on goat tracks round the little offshore island of Graciosa, where a strong wind blew.
Seven years of annual visits had passed before Elsa began to notice a slow deterioration in paradise. The cracked tile in the bathroom was never replaced, the work surface in the kitchenette showed the circular scars of the saucepans and frying pans of more careless co-owners, the cushions of the sofa subsided and the bold colours of the Marc horse faded to a ghostly, vanishing beige and brown. The gardens remained kempt, but the reception area filled with cheap posters and cut-price safari adverts and bubblegum machines. The tone was, subtly, lowering and the staff became more and more offhand and ill-mannered.

Robert's memory was not what it was, and eventually Elsa had to buy the air tickets and take over most of the driving. The cheap charter flights seemed to get more cramped and uncomfortable year by year and she did not think this was wholly due to their ageing. By the tenth year (she counted out the decade in the back of her guidebook, where she made notes on each visit), she knew that Robert was ill.

She thought he had Alzheimer's, and having worked at the hospital most of her life, she knew what she was talking about, but the experts delayed a diagnosis, not wanting to give her bad news. But of course she was right. That's what it was, and a year later it was unmistakable. Elsa could manage him at home, but she didn't think she would go abroad with him again on her own.

They tried taking their son and daughter-in-law with them for the last year, outhousing them at the hotel, but it wasn't a success. Sally and Pete thought Lanzarote really boring, British and boring, and couldn't imagine why Robert and Elsa had enjoyed it so much for so long. "It's all fish and chips and burgers and pubs and TV football," said Pete, "and there aren't even any real beaches. Who wants to watch West Ham v Aston Villa in a pub in Lanzarote? Or anywhere, come to that?"

Elsa didn't want to see her holiday island through their eyes, but she knew what they meant, and decided that when they got home she'd arrange to sell the freehold of their week. She'd need Robert's signature as co-owner, but he wouldn't object -- he usually followed her advice these days -- and better to get it now than later when life would surely get even more difficult.

But, as it turned out, things got more difficult very rapidly, and within four months Robert died of a heart attack while he was taking a shower. Elsa had more on her mind than Paradise Point as she slowly and painfully rearranged her life in his absence, and she didn't even think about the apartment until the annual claim for maintenance arrived, together with a note from a new management: the complex had apparently changed hands in the past year. Robert had always paid the maintenance, as she had in later years paid for the airfares and car hire, but the demand was addressed to them both, and she opened it over her solitary breakfast table and stared at it with some dismay. The maintenance bill had gone steadily up, over the years, just as the service had steadily declined, but she had not known by how much. It was now several hundred euros, instead of the 150 euros it had been in Judy's day.

Well, she wasn't going to pay that, and it was good to be reminded that she ought to try to sell the week as soon as she could. She knew the Spanish property market wasn't doing too well, like most property markets, but she'd surely find somebody to take it on for a nominal price. She'd no intention of ever going there again, it would be too sad to go on her own. They had had some happy times there, even though that cracked tile had begun to get on her nerves.

As she tried to work out where and how and to whom to sell, she began to recall that Robert had often mentioned that he had received telephone calls out of the blue making offers for their week. He had thought some of them were genuine, some not, but had always replied that he was not seeking a sale. Where were these eager buyers now? She searched the internet for advice about selling timeshares (for she had by now realised that their ownership was a timeshare in all but name) and discovered, not greatly to her surprise, that the Spanish property market had totally collapsed. Nobody wanted to buy anything, everyone wanted to sell. This was not very promising. But she resolutely told herself that she was not seeking a sale, she did not need the money, the few thousands they had spent had been well spent, they had had good times. All she needed to do was to extricate herself from the maintenance contract, and all would be well.

Call it quits. She would be happy to call it quits.

It was impossible to quit. Paradise Point, now under new management, refused to accept her withdrawal. They refused to accept the return of the property. She and her late husband, Robert, had jointly signed a contract in perpetuity, and she must go on paying maintenance until she died, and when she was dead Sally and Pete and their children and their children's children would have to pay on and on for ever and ever.

Sally and Pete would not like this at all. She did not dare to tell them. She would have to sort it out for herself, one way or another. She could never let them know.

Recognising the gravity of the situation and the downturn in the world economy that had provoked it, she resolved to go out again to Lanzarote, one last time, with the deeds (in Spanish) and the contract and the paperwork (some of it in English) in order definitively and legally to reject any further demands for maintenance from her or her heirs. This must be possible. It would not be pleasant, but it would be possible. She was a tough old bird (so she flattered and encouraged herself) and she would win out.

Her loyal travel agent of many decades was surprised to hear Elsa was making the trip on her own. He'd sent a message of sympathy on Robert's death, and had assumed the annual Canary flights were over. She had always been slightly embarrassed about the timeshare (he had politely described it, in their itinerary, as "private accommodation") and did not want to confess to it now. But he booked her, without questions, on a convenient flight, as he always had done. She said she didn't need a hire car. She wondered how he thought she would be spending her time. A widow, but not a very merry widow.

She spent her time in Lanzarote in harassment. On arrival, she presented the maintenance demand at reception as she picked up her key and her 20-euro TV card (an innovation, this; TV was once inclusive) and said, as she slipped them into her bag, that she had no intention of paying the maintenance bill. She had already informed the new management by email, phone, text and the postal services (proof of postage and receipt
in her folder) of her intentions. The aggressive and defensive young woman at the reception tried to grab back the key, but it was too late, and Elsa marched off with her wheelie bag to inspect the fading Marc horse, the cracked tile and the scorch marks.

In the morning, she went into battle. She had slept badly and fitfully on the flattened, collapsing mattress, remembering Robert and the good times and the bad times, remembering poor hollow-cheeked Judy, and she woke full of resolution. She needed it.

Brian was the new manager. Pam was his sidekick. She met Pam first, by appointment, in the same conference room where she and Robert had so gaily and irresponsibly signed up for perpetuity. It was like a parody of that earlier gathering. Pam seemed unwilling and unable to grasp the purpose of Elsa's visit, as she insisted on plying her with brochures for newly opened restaurants and asking her fatuous questions about what she most liked to do in Lanzarote. Elsa stonewalled but Pam persisted, and it became clear that, far from preparing to accept the return of the apartment, she was actually trying to sell her another week, at a specially advantageous rate, a bargain rate. Elsa stoutly insisted that she did not want another week, that she did not want the one she already owned, that she was here solely in order to return it to the new management. Her husband having died, she never wished to come to the Canaries again.

Pam did not take in the news of Robert's death. She countered it with a description of a new "points system" which would entitle Elsa to free entry to the swimming pool at the newly purchased Paradise sister club in Puerto del Carmen.

“I don't like Puerto del Carmen," Elsa heard herself saying, though that wasn't really the point.

“Well, what about a week in Tenerife?" said Pam, a glazed look spreading over her unnatural features, her unnaturally smiling face.

“I don't want to go to Tenerife," said Elsa, raising her voice slightly so that it reached another little huddle of guests and sales folk gathered round a table at the other end of the conference room. "I don't want to go to Tenerife, I don't want to come back here, I want to return my apartment and cancel my maintenance. I want to speak to the manager."

Pam glanced at her watch. She had failed to entertain Elsa in pointless conversation for long enough to earn her commission. "What about Maspalomas?" she said, desperately, not quite ready to admit defeat. "There's a very nice club in Maspalomas."

“I want to see the manager, now," said Elsa very loudly.

Pam gave in and went to get Brian.

Brian, a thuggish, fat, balding, charmless guy in a white shirt and a crumpled dark jacket, tried to start off affably, but Elsa had wasted enough time, and cut straight to the point. She was here to cancel her agreement, which could not be legally binding as it had been made
with a previous management and she had never been formally alerted to a change of ownership.

Brian quickly informed her that he had been a police officer in a previous life and that he knew the law. What she and Robert had signed, they had signed, and there was no getting out of it now.

Then he made the mistake of asking her where her husband was, and why he had left Elsa to deal with the negotiations.

“My husband is dead," said Elsa.

He hardly blinked. He stared at her from his little hot, stubborn, avaricious eyes.

Elsa wondered whether to say that Robert had left her with many debts (which of course he had not) or simply to stick to her line of non-compliance. Or should she burst into tears and play the distressed widow? This seemed undignified, although she did by now feel very near to tears.

“I have no intention of paying, I wish to return the paperwork and the deeds to the company and I need a proper receipt for them," she said, as firmly as she could.

Brian now made another tactical error, by asking her if she had children who would take over and service the contract for her.

This enraged and frightened her so much that she said she wanted to speak to an attorney. She insisted on speaking to an attorney.

And so it was, three days later, that she found herself in a windowless little room in a narrow backstreet in Arrecife. She thought she had won. She had proved herself more stubborn than Brian, who had met his match. During the three days, she had tried various ploys. She had written notes, she had pretended to consult a solicitor in England, she had lobbied other guests for their opinion of the new management, she had googled articles on Spanish property law -- there was something called horizontal property law that was not very reassuring. So she gave up on that
approach and pretended she had not seen it. She discovered various organisations that purported to offer legal advice on selling timeshares, but she did not trust them any more than she trusted Paradise Point Properties. And she did, at last, resort to tears.

She could not tell if they were real tears or false tears, but they were noisy and public and embarrassing, and they frightened the sulky woman at reception, and they frightened Brian, who bustled off to fetch her a glass of water.

She did not want to drink from a glass that he had touched, but she took a polite sip, then renewed her demands.

Brian agreed to fix up an appointment in Arrecife. His reluctance to do this persuaded her that the attorney was a real attorney, not some kind of decoy, and he does, she thinks, seem convincing -- not very pleasant, but convincing. The interpreter is a tired-looking middle-aged woman dressed in black, like a widow from a Lorca tragedy. She, too, seems plausible and she is a relief after the vacuous, robotic cheerfulness and parrot-talk of Pam and her colleagues. Her manner seems to indicate that Elsa has won a small victory, and she smiles, dourly and sourly but with appreciation, as she shows Elsa where to sign her name.

Elsa has undone perpetuity. She has walked back into time.

And now she walks out, into the bright sunlight, a free woman. She wanders slowly towards the seafront and the palm trees, and sits herself down at a little café and orders a double espresso and a glass of water. The sea glitters, the children play on the swings, she gazes out over the Atlantic, and she remembers the happy years with Robert, with the old Robert. It had all been worthwhile, after all. It's a pity she can't tell him how it ended. He would have been proud of her, she thinks.

She wonders if she will ever dare to tell Sally and Pete.

© Margaret Drabble, May 2011
Margaret Drabble's latest book is "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: the Collected Stories" (Penguin, £20). Her novels include
“A Summer Bird-Cage", "The Millstone", "Jerusalem the Golden", "The Peppered Moth", "The Red Queen" and "The Sea Lady"