In Restoration excerpt – Italy

WisteriaWarm weather, birdsong, summer time. I began, hesitantly, to picture the Casa dell’Avventura in a distant, hazy image. At least it was something tangible that could be let or sold, if people are prepared to pay for it. Though emotionally fragile, I knew I had to return. Because Sarah and William needed a summer holiday; because Dan wanted to be there in his territory with Penny and Kate and, he hoped, Andrew; because Joe offered to book the flight for him, Dan and me to go together.

It turned out that May and June had been unusually wet. No Gianni to open the windows, inspect the roof, trim back the vines and clear the channel. Gravel had rolled down the drive with the rain and all around the building it had surrendered to underground pressure from couch grass, chickweed, ivy and bindweed. From the pergola at the front, the vines had wrapped the house and fingered through south-facing windows. At the back, soft blue flowers cascaded from Gianni’s favourite plumbago; on the east by the channel and Giulio’s fields, the rose, entangled with jasmine clasping its white-scented flowers, waved a pink bouquet beyond the roof in unsupported exuberance. Gianni’s kitchen was in mourning. Dried-out cabbages leant over dying beans; carrots had given up growing to retire into wrinkled roots in company with dried-out fennel.

The familiar summer throb of bees and somnolent flies; the cicadas’ seesaw notes; the daze of delight and savour of summer. No touch of Gianni in the air; no wry grin at my ‘ahs’ of satisfaction, cigarette in one and the other countryman’s hand on my arm with, ‘Is good, Olivia?’ in his eyes.

Two gasping red geraniums had toughed through the heat. Someone had placed them as sentinels on either side of the last step to the veranda. The tamarisk had spread its feathery leaves over the kitchen shutters, snapped twigs blown into the veranda with flame flowers from the trumpet vine embracing the Pienza pillar. Still there behind the heat haze lurked Monte Amiata, an anchoring note in the unruly dissonance around us. The lock took a fraught moment to worry open. Shutters pushed outwards through cobwebs of lace embroidered with moth wings and bluebottles. Mould impregnating cushions and blankets, nurtured by months of rain sliding inside the shutters and under the windows, stung into nostrils. Stillness. Not even the memory of cigarette smoke. A newspaper abandoned in the hearth, half burnt into curls: 9 December 1982, the day Gianni died.

Monte AmiataOpen wide, the windows let in the zizzazz of Giulio’s strimmer, chain rattling and yaps from Quinto’s former house and a plough groaning along the hill to the west. An angry bee hit me as I followed Joe out, both laden with cushions and blankets. He intuited what had to be done. He never struck me as handsome, but he had a rare loveliness of being. Of being Joe, himself, ready and here, now.

‘I’ll air these,’ he said, about to sling a couple of blankets over the clothesline.

‘Wait, I’ll wipe it.’ Of nearly a year’s grime, I thought. He piled the bedding on dry grass under a stone wall, returning with more blankets to flap fresh in the sun. We smiled like children helping mum.

‘Simple pleasures,’ he said, ‘the ones remembered.’ We rested on two stones dislodged from the retaining wall by the roots of oak trees on the terrace above. I turned to hug him, tearing free from Paul’s shadow enshrined in a dark corner of the past. Joe shifted sideways, from his stone to a hillock and leaned forwards, lifting the corner of a blanket. In its shade we peeped out over the maturing grapes, over dust green veils on knobbly olives, over sunflower fields and drainage canals into haze enveloping the extinct volcano, Monte Amiata.

‘What shall we…?’ I looked at Joe, still hitching up the blanket and gazing beyond.

‘Carpe diem.’ Joe was never discursive. Breaths of air from the south bearing sunbeams blew off musty particles, stroked away year-old crumples, teased out worn or flattened pile to redefine texture and colour.

Not the moment to fret about finding someone to strim the grass, to cut back the rampant vines and bushes and revive some semblance of order. Joe didn’t move.

The silence of the past enfolded me as we sat, separately contemplating. A soundless film of Etruscan ploughs slicing twists of iron red earth, of oxen chewing, flapping tails, steaming manure and creak of harness and axle, as reassuring as the drone of bees on the lavender at my feet. Bursts of strident cutting and growls of neat tractors bred to weave round olives on narrow terraces sporadically crunched the silence before lunch and after the siesta hour into evening. Along the Cassia the coaches, dray carts, an assortment of wheels and hoofs clopped, clanged and jolted into timeless echoes. Nothing obtrusive. Part of the medley of sound through time. A lone military jet gashed the midday blue, a contrasting colour in the weave of life happening.

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