Old Cosimo is sitting on the stone wall on the other side of our fence, like an old lizard soaking up the sun. ‘Buongiorno’ he turns to me, gesturing with his hands for me to turn the on fountain. I flick the switch and the water leaps up. He grins with delight. ‘Time to practise my Italian,’ I think.
‘Dove Tristin e Stella?’ I ask, pointing to the old stone house at the top of the hill. Ever since we arrived, a week back, the house has been firmly shut, all shutters closed. Tristin and Stella are an elderly couple, somewhat of an enigma and very often the talk of our valley.
Known as the ‘inglesi’ they’ve lived here for about forty years. I first met Stella wandering down our narrow dirt road one fine summer’s day. Hatless, her long grey hair streaming behind her, she had a pair of clippers in her hand and was gathering wild flowers. As my car drew close she turned, gave me a startled look, and Ophelia-like, disappeared into the nearest field.
It was after this that I asked Cosimo about them. As the oldest in our small hamlet, he prides himself on imparting any local titbits you wish to know. ‘Oh them,’ he said, ‘… the senora – she’s a poet … not too bad I hear, com si com sa. But Tristin – he’s molto intelligentsia … molto molto molto!’
Cosimo slapped his knees, emphasising this amazing phenomenon, and then leaning forward, he capped his hands to let me in on the secret … ‘Would you believe it? He translates Dante!’
‘Wow’ I said, suitably impressed. ‘So they both work from home in this beautiful place?’ ‘Non non, not so much these days,’ Cosimo leant back, using his arm to demonstrate. ‘Bevono molto molto vino … Chianti Classico – tutto! Guarda la macchina rossa?’ He pointed to the little red Fiat Panda parked at their front door. ‘Si!’ I said, ‘Yes’.
‘Well if you see that red car on the road from here to the village, you pull over and stop. That’s what we all do. That car is pericolosa … it is dangerous … to anything in its way.’ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’ll remember.’ And from time to time we did see the little red car out and about, but it seemed fine to me. Furthermore there was rumour in the village that they were both completely off the bottle, and had, instead, become addicted to tea.
Our dirt road can only take one car, so if we meet another, one pulls over onto the edge of the olives. And that is how we met Tristin. ‘Hello’ he said winding down his window. ‘We’ve been watching your gardening with great interest.’ ‘Well, come and have tea with us.’ I said.
They arrived promptly at four o’clock, the little red car inching its way down the gravel. Both immensely tall and thin, they seemed quite frail, like fine fronds of willow that sway in the breeze. The conversation ranged widely over tea, from politics and books to music. Tristin used to play in the village band – I think he said the trumpet. ‘When it folded I wanted to play for the next village’ he said, ‘I loved it so. But such are the rivalries between villages that they wouldn’t have any of us!’
And yes, he did translate Dante.
A few months later we were invited to them for tea. Their stone house sits atop a ridge commanding a view of two valleys. ‘It surely must be one of the most spectacular sites in Tuscany,’ I thought as we trudged up the hill from our house.
‘Welcome, welcome!’ said Tristin. Stella has the kettle on to boil. We sat down under a giant mulberry tree, admiring the view. Then I went in to help Stella. ‘Oh dear oh dear’ she muttered, wandering around taking stabs at a few cups and saucers. ‘I never know how many teabags, do you?’ ‘Not really.’ I said. ‘Oh well, seven should do.’ She smiled and dropped them all into the teapot.
I glanced around. The kitchen area was a vast space with a vaulted brick ceiling, but what held me spellbound was the use of that space. It seemed that forty years of living had just been plonked down, year after year, and then never been touched. Pots and pans hung from beams, shelving belched books, crockery, clocks … anything and everything. And as for floor space … well, you would need a GPS to navigate across it.
Again the conversation was engrossing, this time encompassing their love of plants, and Stella’s vast knowledge of the history of religion. ‘I feel that everything has a karma,’ she said, ‘a reason for being and a reason not to be disturbed.’ ‘Yes,’ said Tristin, ‘it even includes my computer. I need it for translating and it does bring in very welcome work, but Stella will not have it visible, or turned on unnecessarily – it lives in a small room out the back.’ ‘I don’t like it one bit’ she smiled.
After that it was a very long time that we did not see them. The winter bites in hard in the hills around Florence, and people keep indoors, using up the vast stores of wood that they have collected in the summer. But now it was warm, and everyone was out and about, the noise of strimmers incessant as the field workers cut the grasses around the olives in the bright sunshine.
In our little hamlet our neighbours would come out in the evening glow, and chat while they waited for their pots to boil, and although Tristin and Stella, both immensely shy and formal, were never part of any informal ‘passegiata’ or evening stroll, it worried me that there had been no sign of them at all.
Even more worrying was that on the way back from the village we had noticed a red Fiat Panda halfway down the hill. It seemed to have tumbled off the road, through a vineyard and finally come to rest jammed up against the trunk of a chestnut tree. The drivers’ side window was staved in and there were numerous nasty dents in the side and the top.
‘Goodness,’ I had said to Liam, ‘that looks like Tristin and Stella’s car.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it’s too red and shiny, too new.’ But I wasn’t so sure, and certainly there was no little red car parked at their house. Now I waited apprehensively for Cosimo’s reply …
‘Tristin,’ said Cosimo, shaking his head, ‘Tristin is in hospital. He drove his red car right off the road, rolling all the way down through the vines. He’s broken both his legs, right here’ and he drew a line half way across his thighs. ‘Ouch.’ I said, ‘That means he may not even be able to walk again?’ ‘No,’ sighed Cosimo mournfully.
‘And where is Stella?’ I asked. ‘She cannot stay at home on her own as she is too frail’ he replied. ‘She’s staying with her daughter, Sarah. Every now and then I see Sarah’s car at the house. She goes there to open up and air it.’ I fell silent, trying to imagine what it would be like to live down our valley with no eccentrics at the top of the hill. ‘Awful’ I said, ‘I wonder if he had some sort of a heart attack or stroke?’
‘No no’ said Cosimo. ‘It was the vino. People say that it was not the drink but I know that it was. That’s what happens to the inglesi in Italy … la dolce vita, il vino buono … it gets them all.’ And from under his grubby peaked hat, his ruddy old face for all the world a mirror image of a good bottle laid down for decades, he shot me a mischievous grin.
But old men, with time to sit in the sun, have ages to weave stories around and around, until finessing them becomes a fine art. For the next day I saw Sarah’s car up at the house on the hill, and I walked up to find out how these two special people were doing. ‘Come in, come in,’ said Sarah ‘they’re both here and would like to see you. They’re only using the eastern side of the house at the moment, as it is easier for them to get around.
And there, in the higgeldy-piggeldy kitchen, stood Tristin, as tall as a tree and walking towards me. One of his long arms was covered in plaster, and he had a nasty knock on his head. ‘I remember nothing’ he said. ‘It’s a complete blank. When I came too, the car and I were at the bottom of the vineyard. Luckily I had collapsed across the front and had wedged my head in a sort of vice, in one corner. Rather like wearing a crash helmet.’
Then all of a sudden there was Stella, peering out cautiously from behind one of the cupboards. ‘Would you like some real Nescafe coffee?’ she asked brightly.
But, remembering the tea, I beat a hasty retreat, down the western side of the valley, to our house at the bottom of the hill.
© 2015 hemispheresapart.com
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