There’s a custom here in the Alentejo that’s curious. I can’t see it working many other places but it seems to fit our lifestyle rather well. It’s one of those little things that outsiders notice and remark upon without seeing the significance or practicality, and yet without it our village life would be poorer. As I say, I couldn’t see it happening in London but I’m sure that other countries used to have it, (I’m sure I can hear my mother’s voice in my ear saying, “But of course, dear!”), and that it’s just been lost, an unsung casualty of the 20th Century’s change to a more migratory population.

If one lives in a village near here it’s the custom that if one pops out, say, to the shops or the café or round to see a friend for a chat, one leaves one’s front door keys hanging in the lock on the outside of the door. This serves two purposes; firstly, of course, there’s the impossibility of forgetting where one put one’s keys and inadvertently locking oneself out of the house, (a vital consideration if one’s popping out for a glass or two of our local hooch, Medronho), but secondly it saves everyone the trouble of guessing where one’s gone. Keys hanging in the door tell any caller, “I’ve gone out; I’m not far, won’t be (too) long and if you want to find me ask around, ‘cos someone’s bound to know”.

Now, this is very useful and considerate and saves us all a lot of trouble and time, but the custom as a whole sits curiously astride the local’s fear of anyone knocking on the door after dark; if one is unwise enough to attempt this, one is met with an apprehensive demand of “Who’s there?” from behind a securely bolted door and one is left imagining the house-owner standing the other side, complete with night cap, candle and stout staff, ready to sell his life dearly in defence of the family cottage. After the first few attempts to visit neighbours after dark when I first came to live here, I’ve never tried again. It puts people’s backs up, spoils relations, seldom achieves anything worthwhile and one thing’s for sure – access is never gained, no matter how reasonable the request. No, hang on, I did once get in, but I was carrying a bottle and I made sure old José knew it was full.

Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is the curious juxta-position in attitudes to security between daylight and night. In daylight, well, the door’s open or the keys are in the lock, whereas at night, beware, we’ll shoot first and ask questions later.

The attitude towards the dark is understandable, especially when one watches any television, (and the majority of soaps here are Brazilian and reflect the gun culture of that beautiful country), but the attitude towards security during the day …… well, one gets used to it and it ceases to amaze – until it happens to be brought, smack, to one’s attention by some unusual event, and just such an event happened to us last week …..

It was Monday morning and I’d asked Daniela to pop into the village to do some shopping and deposit the weekend’s cheques. Half an hour later she was on the phone …

D “Hey, Frank, can you ring the bank please”

F “What! Aren’t you there yet?”

D “Of course I’m here; that’s the point”

F “Whadya mean, “That’s the point”?”

D “I mean, “That’s the point” I’m here in the bank and I can’t find anyone ….. just ring them up and see if anyone comes to the phone …..”

Well, I rang, but no-one appeared. So I rang Daniela back and tried to make sense of the whole thing, obviously fearing the worst. Our bank was tarted up a couple of years ago with those double doors where you have to wait for the first one to shut and the green light to appear before being able to open the second. It always seemed a bit of over-kill on their part as most of our locals simply don’t understand automatic doors at the best of times, but now it was looking as if they’d been conservative in their security measures.

“Hi Daniela,” I said, “I’ve rung but there’s no answer”

“Yes, I know,” she replied, “I heard it. Look, there’s no-one here at all; the money’s on the counter and I can see the key in the safe’s lock. What d’you think I should do?”

That put me on the spot …. what did I think she should do?

And then, just as I was starting to tell her she should wait there while I phoned the Police, the solution hit me; it was staring me right in the face, winking at me from the bottom of the computer screen ….. the time …. of course …. it was lunch hour …. it all made sense – in a peculiarly Alentejano kind of way. The bank clerks had gone to lunch and metaphorically left the front door keys in the lock.

“Don’t worry, Daniela, just sit down there for another ten minutes and someone’ll be along. Trust me, it’ll be OK, nothing’s wrong, they’ll be in Joselia’s down the road”.

So it proved, and funnily enough I’m not planning to move my account. No, the money’s safe where it is I think – especially at night!