Bruno accosted me in the rough and ready outhouse where local smallholders and farmers sell their produce directly to the public. The potatoes and root vegetables still have earth clinging to them to prove authenticity. No ‘washed and ready to eat’ claim. Irregular, uneven and genuine.
He couldn’t remember, he confessed, whether he was 93 or 97 years old. He laughed and said he was planning to reach 100 and beyond. His only problem seemed to be a surplus of time. Though still literate, I suppose, having had legally to attend school until 11 years old, his generation did little reading beyond the occasional newspaper, and less writing, other than shopping lists and memos. But they have resilient memories. He wanted to talk.
We found a seat in the shade. I looked at the genial old man who had accosted me like Coleridge’s ancient mariner in search of someone to listen to his life story. At the back of my mind tugged the errands I still had to run and the click of seconds turning into minutes, but he had to begin.
His family worked the land around our house down to the large one with a castellated tower which belonged to the landowners. They were mostly away. In Rome, he imagined, or Florence. It was the same. Their farm manager lived near the main house in the next best building. Our stream ran past where they lived. About this time of year, after the heat builds up to the ‘dog days’ in mid-August, around or after the Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, the storms lashed the land with lightning and hammered it with thunder. In the bad years, hailstorms battered olives and grapes to the ground. One year our neighbours, Franco and Mauro, walked rapidly, with hardly a nod in our direction, right across our land to inspect the damage in their fields beyond.
Below us, after such rain as now, water starts to roll off the hillsides dried too hard to absorb it. I remember that happening early one September when the boundary gully was filled with foaming brown water to hit the stream in a surge down into the Val di Chiana. One year, Bruno recounted, it was so strong that a piece of land broke off and the course of the stream changed to the one I know. He laughed saying, as it formed the land boundary, the change of the stream’s course gave him more land and us less, though we did not lose any olive trees. So the physiognomy of the land was changing before his eyes. I had imagined that only happened in earthquakes or great floods as when the river Arno inundated Florence or a dam bursts.
As I was writing this in front of an open window looking out over hillside terraces, the labour of centuries, a clap of thunder made me jump. I’ve closed the window, but the lightning and thunder have ceased. Just like that, as suddenly as they came, leaving behind a curtain of drizzle over the Val di Chiana.