I'm seeing the Samuel this afternoon at four. The builders' budgets are ready, we will analyse them, and then decide which one I'll use – that is if I can afford either. If I can't, then I can't have this flat.
I don't know how to pass the time until then. Maybe I'll go for a long walk to some new part of town. Maybe I will take another bus ride along the river to the Atlantic ocean. Not far along the coast to the north of the estuary, there is a seventeenth century triangular granite fort on a small peninsular. It is called Castelo do Queijo [Castle on the Cheese] because that is the shape of the rock it is built on.
The fort is often hit by the waves, so you get to it across a ramp. When I first went there, I was afraid of getting blown off in the strong wind. So I can take a bus again, get out at the fort, walk about and have my hair blown off, and then take refuge in a café.
I've got good news for you, Ann.'
I was so elated I could not speak. The budgets that the builders gave Samuel this morning were both for thirty-four thousand euros, and I had decided that if they were any more than forty thousand, I would pull out of buying the flat. What's more – I couldn't believe my ears – the budgets included every last thing I wanted, from a new wooden window and shutters to hand-made wooden door handles.
Samuel did not think I needed central heating. ['Why, when you use it for such a short time?'] He forgot to tell both builders about it, when we were looking round the flat with them, until I realised I hadn't heard him say aquecimento central. Not have central heating? After my frigid nights in Lisbon and Coimbra? Central heating was in the builders' budgets as well.
So which builder would I use? I liked the way the boss of the second pair stood with his head cocked to one side like a blackbird while he listened to Samuel tell him what I wanted. I liked his mate's green squashy hat. Anna wore a green felt hat like this one when she helped paint the ceilings of my flat on Ligovsky Prospect. Very well, let it be the second builder.
I also remembered how practical this blackbird was, how he counted the number of electrical points that would be needed, noticed that a new false ceiling in the dining room couldn't come right to the window, noticed that some of the door handles were modern brass levers instead of the original hexagonal wooden ones – we could make new ones to match, he said. The day after meeting me at the flat, he was back there with his plumber and joiner, having brought the joiner to Porto from his home town sixty kilometres away because he was such a good and inexpensive workman.
Samuel was taken aback when he learned that English people do not have identity cards. What would I use instead when the lawyer from his estate agency took me to get my Numero Fiscal de Contribuinte? This fiscal number is as essential to living here as an internal passport is to a Russian. Without it, you can do nothing that needs an interface with public life.
'The department is not used to issuing a fiscal number without an ID card. What other documents do you have for identity?'
'Driving licence with photo. European Union health card.'
How glad I was that I got these when I was re-establishing myself in English life.
'And what about an address? What is your address here?'
'I haven't really got one. I am staying at a pensione.'
'I suppose that will do. In any case, you have to register your address again after you buy the flat. All right, bring your passport and everything else you have. It is very easy; it will only take five minutes to get this number.'
I put the visiting card that the pension had given me into my document folder, and hoped for the best.
I thought of capricious, sullen, overbearing OVIR in Russia, its whimsical, short opening hours, its heart-rendingly long queues, its demand for another document when you have assembled your mountain right to the last stamped form, its demand that having filled in a document by hand, in duplicate, you write out the whole thing again, twice, because you made a slip – in short, the hell you go through to register your passport, or register where you live, or prove that you are who you are, that Edith Annette Palmer with the birth date 12/04/41 on this document with her photograph, is one and the same person as Edith Anett Palmer on that document with the same birth date and photograph. 'We should accept that they are the same person? The very idea!'
After Samuel and I finished talking about the budget, the lawyer came out of her office to meet me. We shook hands, she apologised for her bad English, and we walked off towards her car.
'You can speak to me, I understand a little,' she said cautiously.
This was after we had walked for five minutes in silence, when I was concentrating so hard on what had to be done next that I forgot she was there.
She must have been in her mid-forties, because her son was already twenty-five. She had wavy brown hair and bright smiling eyes, and a charming way of underlining what she was saying by touching my arm with one finger.
'We've all got bikes. In the weekend, my husband and I like to go out riding, and we often ride as far as the Castelo do Queijo... My husband speaks English much better than I do!'
She wrote down her name for me, so that I could remember it: Felisbéla Nováis.
'Felisbéla – it means happy and beautiful!' I exclaimed.
'And Nováis means new. You are happy and beautiful and new – is that right?'
She laughed and said she hoped so.
At the office where we went to get my number, she took a queueing ticket [wonderful] and we waited five minutes, just as Samuel promised. The young man behind the desk started going through my passport and filling in his form. Then he stopped, looked again at a line in the passport, and said something to Felisbéla. They discussed something for a moment, and both turned to look at me.
'We noticed it will be your birthday in nine days!' she said.
With the document for my new number, we went on to the bank to open an account. I handed my passport to the young woman in charge, she studied it for a while, and looked up.
'I see it will be your birthday in nine days!'
Felisbéla and I exchanged smiles.
I filled in the application form and passed it to the young woman, Estella [meaning star, she told me]. She began to transfer it to her computer. Then she stopped, picked up my passport, and turned to the names and addresses of two relatives at the back. She paused at the the second one, my sister Eirene in New Zealand.
'You won't need those,' I said anxiously. 'They are for emergencies.'
'It's only that your address is too long to fit on my computer. I am looking for a shorter one.'
'Let's see if I can make it shorter.'
I took back the form, crossed out some words, changed Court to Ct, Street to St and Hill to Hll, and gave it to her again. Would I have to copy it all out once more?
She smiled, typed Ct St Hll, and smiled again when it fitted into her computer.
With my new fiscal number and bank account, I have started to grow a Portuguese layer on top of my Russian, English and New Zealand ones.