Born firmly on African soil, we grew up as African children do, running through wild acres of the veld and splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea. The languages, culture and experience of Europe passed us by. Totally. We learnt no French, no Spanish and no Italian. There was little chance of classical music, opera or art museums.
As the South African comedian Pieter Dirk Uys once explained ‘Africa was our whole world and it engrossed us completely. As a child I had a map of Africa on the wall next to my bed, and if I turned it upside down, then South Africa was on the top, and Europe stayed under the duvet. That was good.’
‘I’m going to learn French!’ I announced to Liam when I first arrived in London. ‘I know that it is at a very late age indeed, but I think my brain can take it.’ ‘Excellent,’ he said ‘go off and learn French so that you can speak Italian.’ ‘How odd is that?’ I thought. The French and all they stand for had long been a romantic dream of mine. At university I crooned away to Edith Piaf’s Milord, and smoked French cheroots. ‘Now I can go to Paris and sit in a night club and be – oh so – oh la la — French!’ I thought. So, for about three years, I battled through acres of French verbs never really knowing what was potting.
Then we bought Fontana. Out went the French and in came the most beautiful language in the world. The language of opera, of friendship and of love. From the gentle dialect of the Florentines to the more guttural Tuscans in our valley – those of the ‘ghasa and ghoco-ghola’ fame – I love it. And I fell in love with Europe and all it has to offer too.
There can be nothing more exciting than packing your car outside your home in London, and getting it ready to drive right across Europe. Once the picnic basket goes in, with its thermos flasks of coffee and snacks for the road, you’re set. ‘Let’s not go the same way every time,’ I said to Liam ‘let’s go the scenic route. Let’s spend a couple of nights on the road each time we go. Let’s go up through the Swiss lakes, or down to the Mediterranean, or even through Spain. Let’s do what we never did as children.’
And so we did, and it was wonderful. Yet every time that we reached our final destination, and we bumped down our perilous and familiar road I would think ‘Can there be a better place than this anywhere else on earth?’
‘You know, you don’t have to die and go to heaven,’ I said to Liam, ‘because paradise is right here.’ ‘That may be’ replied Liam but each time I arrive back I wonder if our old boys will still be there. They may be tough and wiry but they are really getting very frail.’
Then one day it happened. We arrived back fairly late in the evening. In the morning I threw open the shutters. The early morning sunlight streamed in and as I leaned out of the window to savour the moment I saw Leila down at the chooks. Alone. ‘That’s funny, where is old Enzio?’ I wondered, and I leaned out further. ‘Buongiorno,’ I called out, ‘Come stai? How are you?’ ‘Non cosi bene – not so good.’ came the reply. ‘I’ll come down,’ I said.
It transpired that a few weeks back old Enzio had had a heart attack. He had landed up in the hospital at Poggibonsi, and was now at home recovering. He is impossible,’ Leila told me, ‘he listens to nothing and will not rest even though the doctors have told him to.’
‘Well thank heavens he has the spirit to recover.’ I said.
Over the summer he did just that. Every day the old boy was up at the crack of dawn. Then Leila would take him by the hand, and with her help and the help of a stick, he insisted on slowly taking charge of all his old chores. One by one he achieved them, starting with the care of his beloved chooks and the walking of Beethoven, and slowly progressing to the more arduous tasks of strimming and gardening.
Everybody admired him, and especially old Cosimo, who seemed to do less and less himself and become more and more reliant on sitting on his upturned bucket offering words of encouragement. ‘Bravo!’ I would hear him call, ‘just a little more and you have done it.’
‘I don’t think old Enzio is the one to worry about’ I said to Liam one day. ‘Rather it is old Cosimo … he is getting less and less mobile and he’s a frightful colour.’ I had been over chatting to his daughter Manuela and his wife Flavia. ‘The women tell me that he won’t listen to a thing either … he eats and drinks what he fancies, and then sits in the sun.’
Not too long after that we managed another road trip. This time we decided to drive back to Italy through the Rhone valley, passing Dijon and Lyon, and overnighting along the way. On the final day we happened to be driving by the outskirts of Portofino.
‘We’ve got a little time – I reckon we are about 5 hours from Fontana – so why not pop in and have a cup of tea with Leo and Nell?’ I said. These friends of ours had just bought a house on the hills above Portofino and were anxious to show us what they had found. ‘Good idea,’ said Liam, ‘let’s do it.’
Leo and Nell were in and very soon the kettle was on the boil. We sat out on the terrace looking down on the bay of Portofino, entranced by what they had bought. Nell was getting to know the neighbours and Leo had taken to getting up every morning at 6am and exploring the countryside. ‘Stay for the night’ they begged, but we decided not to. ‘We need to get home’ said Liam, ‘we have already taken four hours out of our journey and we really should go.’
By the time we bumped down our stony road it was at about ten in the evening. Not a light shone in the big old stone house, for these are working people, field workers, who get up at the crack of dawn and work to the hours of the sun. We unpacked as quietly as we could and went to bed.
The next morning I ducked under Manuela’s washing and climbed her rickety stairs. I am in the habit of doing this when I arrive and it helps me to settle back. We usually have a little chat. Manuela feeds me shockingly strong espresso and her mother-in-law Flavia starts to frown in preparation of trying to understand my Italian.
But not this time.
‘Permesso’ I called knocking on their old brown door. The old fashioned courtesies still exist here. Manuela came to the door ‘Entra’ she said. Her face was swollen and puffy. Seated at the table beyond her was the large form of Flavia. Dressed entirely in black she was rocking backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Pasquale stood behind her his hands resting gently on her shoulders. He seemed at a loss to know what to do. ‘Che e’ successo? – what’s the matter?’ I asked.
But I knew. Old Cosimo was dead.
What I did not know, was that the funeral had been the afternoon before. Had we not decided to take a break for tea with our friends we would have been there …
Sitting atop the spine of one of the hills surrounding Panzano is a small cemetery of the utmost charm. I like to wander around it, for on all the graves, in good Catholic fashion, there is a picture of the person buried there. It sets my imagination going … who were they? Who was this young or old person?
Did they live a good life, or was it once of hardship and toil? If you pass this cemetery at night, every single grave, and the niches in the wall, are lit up. This is for 365 days of the year, through the heat of the summer, and through the cold dark days of the wintertime. They never go out.
Now the time has come for the eternal lights of that small cemetery to shine down on old Cosimo. No more will we see the familiar old figure toddling from plastic chair to upturned bucket to swing seat. No more will he weave fantastic stories around small events. No more will we see Manuela scolding him while she marches him through our wooden gate to return one of Liam’s tools that he has somehow ‘borrowed’.
A lovable, feisty, cheeky and simple rascal has gone, and quite simply, our little valley will never be the same.
© 2015 hemispheresapart.com
Leave your details here to get an email when the next chapter is released!