London in Spring. Outside my window the apple blossom has started, and the small courtyard is bursting with life. There’s a steady hum of the pressure hose as Liam washes the brickwork down. Then he’ll be busy with the clippers. He loves this tiny patch. ‘I’ve always thought Liam should be a farmer’ his mother would say. ‘Somewhere warm and sunny, bring out his love of wide open spaces, his South African roots.’
There’s not much for me to do in this tiny urban patch. I leave Liam to it and walk up the road to the local school, where my bees were. James, the school beekeeper, and I are packing up the empty hives, storing skeps, bee veils and frames ‘The demolition squad will be here by Monday, we need to get a move on’ James says. I look around, trying to imagine the bulldozers flattening our apiary to make way for new classrooms.
I’ve always kept bees, since about the age of sixteen. Ever since I stumbled across my grandfather’s hive, overgrown and forgotten in the veld near Cape Point. Somehow, on this wild tip of Africa, they had managed to survive decades of neglect. ‘Fierce bees those’ I smile as I remember how they once chased a cousin right into the sea …. clouds of bees around his head, and his trousers around his ankles.
James and I chat about it as we pack the final things away, about the difference between the African ‘killer bee’ and the more gentle European bee that we breed in London. Right now we’ve been importing Italian queens for their docile nature. ‘Doesn’t make sense,’ I laugh,’ an Italian queen reminds me of some sort of diva … volatile and feisty.’ I’ll miss this apiary, and I’ll miss working with an expert bee-keeper too.
Back home there’s been a phone-call from Liam’s twin sister, Laura. ‘You know what Laura is like,’ he tells me. ‘They’re coming over from Sydney in July, and she is looking for an enforced rest for Jim before she allows him to put foot in the UK. Once here he will simply work non-stop. She thinks Florence would be good and wants to know if we’ll join them.’
‘Better still’ I reply. ‘Can we take a few days before they arrive, just the two of us? We’ve both been working flat out and are pretty run down …’
‘I’ve no time to think of it. You arrange the place, book the flights and tell my secretary. If you can organise it all, I’ll do it’, he says.
I sit down at the kitchen table, with a large map of Italy in front of me. My eyes glance to the north of Italy, to Aosta, where part of my mother’s family came from. My mother cannot remember the location, it is so far back in time now, and we have long since lost the language. But for my father this Italian connection is special.
‘Just look at your mother’ he would say ‘where-ever we are I have to build her a fountain, factor in a balustrade and find a workroom for her to sculpt in.’ Then he would look at my beautiful mother with her olive skin, jet black hair and cornflower blue eyes and say, ‘That’s her Italian blood coming out!’
My eyes move down the map, further south, to Florence, and nearby Prato. I’ve been reading Italian novels again. This time it is The Merchant of Prato. Daily life in a medieval city. It’s a fascinating account of a self-made man’s struggle to become rich and influential, and when he dies he bequeaths the lot to the city of Prato. Perhaps we will explore Prato as a result?
And the hills around Florence, where I feel so strongly that I could live … from the very first time that I set eyes on this perfect jewel of a city. It has everything for me: history, religion, antiquity, culture and art. I don’t know about music? One could study and learn there forever … to say nothing about the language!
I pick up a pin, and run my finger in a straight line down from Florence. I stick the pin into the map. ‘Greve-in-Chianti’ comes up. ‘Hotels near Greve-in-Chianti’ brings up several options on Google. One of them is set in countryside that could be part of a medieval frieze. It seems to be about 15 minutes’ drive from Greve. The receptionist speaks a little English and, yes, room number nine is available from Friday until Wednesday. I’ve done it!
Next chapter: Into Tuscany …