IT was the news that ruthlessly crushed any hopes of a happy Christmas.
Almost three months ago, nine homes in the sun-bleached town of Albox, in Almeria, were told they were illegal and in line to be torn down.
It prompted scenes of chaos, anger and despair as homeowners struggled to come to terms with the desperate news.
Now, in just under a month’s time – by April 9 – these houses are officially due to be pulled down.
Amid all the recriminations and accusations regarding who’s to blame for the tragic state of affairs, it is easy to forget that real people, filled with fear, are at the heart of this tragic affair.
Once all the mayors, town halls and high-profile politician visits are cast to one side honest people are left to face the prospect of losing their hard-earned homes.
Among those caught up in this absurd mess are John, 82, and Muriel Burns, 70, who chose to settle in Albox nine years ago.
The apparent tranquillity of their Almeria outpost has been catastrophically shattered.
So high profile has the elderly couple’s suffering been, that their threatened home was chosen as the setting for last weekend’s meeting by UK Minister for Europe Chris Bryant.
“I was left suicidal after we received the orders,” explains Muriel, from Dewsbury.
“I felt as I had nothing left to live for, I just wanted to die.”
The former fashion designer went into shock and was forced to receive emergency tranquiliser injections.
“My home means the world to me, we have invested everything into it.”
“At least now I have settled down and can face the problem without breaking down.”
In spite of his growing years, husband John has remained just as steadfast.
He underwent heart surgery nine years ago and also suffered a stroke last year, temporarily losing the use of his right hand.
“I am currently battling on, although I have been suffering from a hernia condition brought on by the stress.”
If the thought of the bricks and mortar being torn down was bad enough, then the spiralling legal costs the homeowners have to stump up are almost beyond comprehension.
“Our savings went into this home and we were confident we could rely on our monthly pensions for our living costs,” explains John, who comes from Leeds.
The former builder revealed the inconsistency of the home rulings, by explaining that his neighbour’s home – which is similar in size and built on the adjacent plot of land – has received no such order.
“There is no logic whatsoever in the decision made, no semblance of consistency,” reveals the former builder.
“Even the Spaniards who live here are up in arms. They are all shocked at what is going on here, so much so that they have all got together to sign a 2000-strong petition.”
Just under a decade ago, the Burns’ retirement prospects looked so very different.
Fast approaching the end of 2001, the elderly couple had trekked the length and breadth of Spain in search of their dream retirement home.
But their extensive house hunting proved fruitless and they returned to the north of England empty handed, ready to enjoy another British Christmas.
Yet, by chance, the couple saw an advert promoting Albox and, on a whim, booked a four-week festive break.
Within just two weeks of their planned stay, John had signed on the dotted line to buy their home for less than 100,000 euros.
And when gazing across the rolling plains, with the early morning sun beating down, it is easy to see why the Burns chose Almeria as their home.
The home is impeccably maintained and its gardens and swimming pool – all built with the hard teamwork of the couple – radiates serenity.
Yet, the happy couple had no idea that their home was officially ruled illegal just one year later.
Although Albox town hall issued building licences for the properties, unbeknown to them, these were later nullified following court action by the Junta.
Worse still, the bureaucratic procedure rumbled on in court for a further seven years until the Burns were finally notified of the ruling just before Christmas.
“We heard nothing, we didn’t receive any letters or word from any official bodies,” says John, who believes their home had trebled in value since they originally purchased it.
“What could we do? We were given just 15 days to respond.”
A ray of light may have arrived with a report in the Almeria local press, that quoted Albox mayor Jose Garcia saying that no houses will be pulled down under his watch.
However, the announcement has been met with heavy scepticism from John.
His reasoning is simple as he explains: “Garcia is just covering his back as the Junta can still rule anything.”
Yet, even if the worst comes to the worst, there is still no doubt in the minds of both Muriel and John regarding what will happen if wrecking balls do indeed descend on their beloved home.
“We will chain ourselves to this place if the demolition men do arrive,” explains Muriel.
“We will have nothing to live for if we lose this house. “We have the right to defend our home.”
Such extreme action is not a surprise, considering the lack of support the distressed homeowners have received from both the local government and the Junta.
Another Albox couple facing up to the demolition of their home is Christine, 65 and Noel Payne, 68.
The couple revealed that Albox mayor Jose Garcia has blocked any town fundraising events backed by protest group AUAN to help those struggling to meet their legal costs.
“Garcia’s stance is that if the homes haven’t been pulled down then people haven’t lost anything which is quite ridiculous,” explains Christine, from Sussex.
“So far we have forked out over 1000 euros just on lawyer fees, we never planned for any of this in our retirement budgets.”
Sadly, it is with bitter inevitably that the subject of failing health is broached by the pair who bought their plot of land in 2001 and completed their home in 2003.
“Noel, whose family have a history of cancer, is backwards and forwards to the medical centre every six months to check up on his prostate,” continues Christine.
“Personally I feel terrible, I am suffering from high blood pressure as this nightmare is always on my mind.
“Sometimes we just have to sit down on our own and be quiet otherwise it all gets too much.”
However, Christine has admitted that both herself and Noel were buoyed by the recent visit of UK Minister for Europe Chris Bryant to Albox.
They were both present for the arrival of Bryant and political counterparts Giles Paxman, the British Ambassador, and Steve Jones, the British Consul at the home of John and Muriel Burns.
“We had the feeling the meeting was positive, at least they had taken the time to talk to us,” explains Christine.
“But after all is said and done, they still can’t interfere with the Spanish government and take direct action.”
Here’s hoping that there is somebody out there who can take action and put a stop to this absurd mess