Charcoal burner in Millington Woods, Yorkshire

If you crossed the mountains to the east of the once malarial, now drained Tuscan valley of the Val di Chiana into the Tiber valley in search of the enigmatic painter Piero della Francesca, you used to pass woodland clearings with the huts of charcoal burners, their mounds slowly leaking wisps of smoke. Every few kilometres there would be the distinctive ox-red hut, and occasionally a house, for the man responsible for the maintenance and clearance of a stretch of mountain road.

To the stonemason Guido it was a dream job. He had his own hut where he brewed coffee and smoked snugly out of the wind and rain, or sat outside leaning against the flaking red paint to smoke in the sunshine. It was a six-day employment starting at 7 in the morning and ending at 2 in the afternoon, which edged back to 1 pm in a 7-hour day, 6-day week becoming 36 hours instead of the contractual 42.

I was to meet him at his front door at 6.30 in the morning. Our first stop was at the bar where curious eyes followed us as he bought me a black coffee and ‘corrected’ it with elan. A shot of brandy-fired coffee propelled us into the sharp autumn air to find his FIAT 500. It was in the now cloisterless courtyard of the Franciscan church through some obscure arrangement with a monk, probably to do with church maintenance and repairs.

By 7.30 we were chugging up the mountain road to his hut. There we paused to savour another small cup of black coffee heated on a curious contraption with a paraffin burner. I was careful to sit by the door.

We would walk along his section of the road. He carried a scythe and saw to deal with overhanging branches and grass on the verges, fallen rocks or a retaining wall that was starting to crumble. Back to the hut and another shot of black coffee. Then it was time to strike off the road and up0 the mountain along the logging tracks to the reservoir. He would check the channel was clear and joke about the wild boars – recently reintroduced – who were using it. Only once we saw one as they usually prowl at dusk and night.

Guido never carried a house key. He would leave his mountain road about 1 pm to arrive home well before 2, the official end of his day’s work. Peremptorily he would hammer on the door to bring his wife rushing down the stairs to open it and follow him up to the kitchen area on the first floor with a scrubbed table, chairs and ashtrays. He would stretch out his legs, lean back, smoking, and wait for the pasta, followed by dry little knobs of chicken, a peach and, if lucky, a slice of cake left by his boss, who was a frequent visitor. He then pushed his chair back to clump down the stairs calling me to follow him on his moon-lighting escapades. A neighbour’s wall needed mending. A cousin was building a new breezeblock house and his help was needed – cash only.

So the years passed. His daughter, lean and alert like him, grew older and left to work ‘up north’. He was surprised when a son was born. I was in his house a couple of times when his boss was there. On one occasion it was for the birthday of Guido’s wife and he had brought her the latest radio and tape player. Guido looked on benignly.

Not long afterwards Guido’s brother-in-law asked me if Guido should be told who was the real father of the boy he thought was his son. All noted the resemblance. True, but what would be the purpose of breaking up two family units? His boss had a family too.

So time passed. Guido’s little hut has long been boarded up, its red paint peeling. Road maintenance is carried out by van patrols that deal with any emergency clearance required. The charcoal burners too have left.

Wood ready for charcoal burning

 

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