The Confessions of a Rambling Man. Chapter 15

Fast asleep in my tent at 3.36 a.m. on an August morning I am violently woken, in the pitch black darkness everything is shaking, bed, tent, the lamp crashes from the beside table, consciousness begins to kick in what the fuck is happening?

At first I think of a wild boar, maybe one of the wild boar that live around here is tangled in the guy ropes of the tent, they can be big hefty brutes – that’s it, a bloody Boar, or hang on, it’s some of my fellow workers playing a trick on me what the hell is it?

The shaking stops and I regain my senses, I fumble about for my torch and get up and head outside – it’s silent, nothing – no pig – no people. 

With nowt to be done I go back to bed, twenty minutes later the bed begins to shake again, less wildly than before but unmistakably like a thing possessed, the solid metal of the bed frame has turned to rubber its the weirdest feeling ever. Now wide awake I clock what’s going on, earthquake, its a fucking earthquake! 

It lasts just a second or two but freaked out I rise again & head out into the open air, all is still once again, did I just imagine the whole thing?

I look around, checking for change, the first glimmers of dawn are beginning, but nothing has changed , I look behind my tent and up at the wall that towers above me fifteen feet of rock held together with cement, had that quake been a little stronger, or the wall a little weaker………………………….

At breakfast the chatter is all about the quake, did you feel it? What happened? Was everyone ok? Gradually during the day the news grows, the internet awash with the story, the epicentre of the quake was thirty nine miles north-east of us, a 6.3 on the Richter scale, vastly more powerful than a nuclear bomb – nature wreaks havoc, over the next few days we learn that in the aftermath of that first quake 299 people lost their lives, many more were injured and thousands made homeless. It’s hard to rationalise it all, as I look out over the hillside, the birds sing, the sun beats down on an Italian summers day, the blissful tranquility.

As the summer heads inexorably towards September the olives grow fatter & the blackberries turn from green to imperial red. In the early mornings before breakfast I go berrying, it becomes a battle to pick enough berries for brekkie before the horseflies find me, the bastards always win and my haul of fruit is inevitably balanced with half a dozen bites that hurt like hell. For once I am reminded that actually mosquitoes are not so bad in the great scheme of things. I fucking hate horseflies. 

As the weeks roll by the plants and vegetables give up their bounty, and one by one the once busy rows turn to scrub and weed, the cabbages are the first to go, then it’s the basil, the onions, the tomatoes ripen and the vines begin to dry out and crinkle, the beans are picked before they grow stringy, the aubergines grow fat and are soon cut for the kitchen. At the end of my working day I’m chatting with Tony on the veg plot, for some reason we get onto the subject of rabbits, I can’t remember why, I say it’s an age since I’ve eaten rabbit, Tonys eyebrows rise, Cornelio you like? Oh yes I say.

Tony insists I join him after work, he’s something to show me. We get into his pick up and after a short drive pull into one of the little farmsteads along the road.

At the rear of the building is a barn *, I learn that Tony is a kind of caretaker for the land, an old couple who are childless still live in the house, but the fella has retired, he’s too old to work the land, so in steps Tony, he’s more or less been adopted, there’s some kind of agreement that he will get the farm when they move on. I’m rather impressed that the land is being used in such a good way, by an ‘immigrant’ it seems a healthy way of doing things.

Anyway, Tony unbolts the barn door an in we step inside  are clucking chickens, a couple of little pigs in a pen & then cages with rabbits. Tony takes a large rabbit from one of the cages and holds it under his arm, with his other arm he gestures towards me to follow him.

Outside I am instructed to hold the rabbits back legs, oh jeez I think this is getting serious. 

He twists the animals neck, there is an audible snap and its feet have  two last thumper kicks before the life leaves the poor coney. As quick as a flash Tony pulls a blade from his back pocket –  I’m told to hold the animal tight as he skins it whilst we are standing there . The guts and entrails are deftly whipped out and slung into a patch of weeds. The skin peeled back like a divers wet suit Tony hands me the gutted and skinned rabbitwhich I place in a plastic bag. 

I thank Tony profusely for the gift of the rabbit, whilst inside I am horrified with myself for being the cause of its demise. That rabbit meat I had spoken nostalgically of enjoying so much in the past was now mine to eat again and of course I didn’t want it, but not to eat it was a supreme and terrible waste, so that rabbit became a curry & though I know that every mouthful was perfectly cooked, perfectly spiced and prepared I have never enjoyed a meal less in my life,

On a day off Guilia suggests a trip to the beach & we head off for the day in the fiat.

Its a little over an hours drive to the beaches closest to Rome, as we head around the motorway that circuits the City to avoid heading through the centre I notice that the slipway junctions onto the motorway we pass at regular intervals all seem to have a young woman waiting there, all are scantily dressed, micro shorts here and there, extra high heels, when I spot a girl by the side of the road in a bikini I ask Guilia, who are they? Hookers she replies as if its the most normal thing in the world. She then goes on to explain that she has a friend who works for a women’s refuge in the City, these girls are mostly trafficked from Eastern Europe, put out each day to work by their pimps. They have no choice – work or face dark consequences. In the middle of the day and so openly in what I had always imagined to be a country where God was supposed to be important these young women are left to ply their trade by a society that doesn’t give a shit.

Men will always want to pay for sex, but surely there has to be a better way than this. 

We arrive at a beach close to Rome, each few hundred metres a Restaurant lays claim to a section of beach, puts up a cafe, a car park, fences and sun loungers in rows, come mid morning the predominantly ageing section of the population of Roma heads to the beach in their fiats, ladies of a certain age lurk under wide brimmed floppy hats, quite why when they came for the sun seems confusing when they cover themselves up, maybe it’s to hide recent botox injections, I have never seen so many lips that look like they’ve been stung by bees, and the knockers, there is more silicone in those chests than you can possibly imagine, I am genuinely scared by the ladies on the beach, the men no less so, aged beach boys with leather tanned skins and elephant wrinkled pelts, speedos for nut sacks, chunky medallions hang from turkey-necks and glitter in the sun, long swept back hair all shades of grey surely makes them think it is 1974 and they are still young. I wonder if this is me gazing into the future that now lies not so far away……………….

Deciding it would be far better to simply enjoy the day at the beach I turn my thoughts away from decrepitude and old age. On the next lounger to me is Giulia the boss. She is in a white bikini, a kind of rather attractive crocheted sort of number, she is slim toned and tanned, she is my age,  completely natural, there’s no hint of artificial enhancement, she doesn’t need it.

Then I begin to wonder, it is unusual this scenario isn’t it – that she always takes me somewhere on my day off, me, one of the staff, no, she feels sorry for me that’s it, or its because we are old friends, or she just wants company, but what if, could she fancy me? Do I fancy her? I keep taking sneaky peeks at her on the lounger, mad ideas play in my head. I am working on her land, the grubby horny handed labourer, she’s the lady of the house, we get down and physical. 

I have spent too long on my own, I am not a character in a D H Lawrence novel. 

But nevertheless part of me has the hots for the Boss.

With Septembers arrival whilst the days are still summer hot I have the unmistakable feeling that time is moving on and that I should also moving, At the hillside the pomegranates have turned from green to deep red, autumn is close. 

On my next day off I Decide to go into Rome and shop, some new clothes to replace the old worn out stuff, I head into the City on the train, I wander the stores looking for the kind of clothes I think I won’t find in London & grab a few summer sale clothes that I can use out in Goa, I haven’t had. A winter in four years and I don’t want one at any time soon. 

I take a break at lunchtime and find a restaurant in an old square, the Campio Del Fiore *. 

The stalls of the morning market have been cleared away but its not been swept through yet,  crushed flower stems, petals strewn like coloured confetti lie between the cobble stones. There’s a restaurant in one corner of the square with plenty of outside seating and a large awning to give shade. A  stone fountain bubbles away nearby.  Lunchtime.

I take a seat and order food and beer. Shortly afterwards an old man hobbles by walking with a cane and carrying a violin case. He has a hump back, is decked out in a dark suit that looks as old as he is. He props his violin case at an empty table and opens it. He begins to move from table to table purposely circling each occupied one playing as he goes, I imagine him having done this for ever.

To add to the vision an old and very large lady is pushing a supermarket shopping trolley across the square, she is dressed in a  tent dress in a garish floral print, the wheels clatter on the cobbles, the violin can’t quite drown them out. She draws to a halt at the fountain, catching her breath, beads of sweat pour from her face. She manœuvres herself onto the base of the fountain and then immerses herself up to her neck in the water, her great fleshy arms prop her up on the stone rim and there she hangs like some mythical sea creature panting away in the water.

The music plays on, I finally made it into the movies, a bit part actor in a Fellini movie.

Back at the homestead it’s business as usual, with less work needed on the veg patch we catch up on some other tasks. Despite being a man of the land Tony has never learnt to swim, in fact he fell into a lake as a youngster and nearly drowned, he’s been afraid of water ever since, one of the jobs that needs to happen is to clear the weed and the vegetation that is clogging up the little lake, its not a big expanse of water, but nevertheless Tony is not happy to get too close to it. I on the other hand love the idea and need no excuse whatsoever to jump in and beaver away clearing the weeds and the water lilies that cover the surface. Its darned hot on the day set aside for the pond clearing, I climb in and sink right up to my shoulders, the water is bloody delicious. Mud squidges between my toes and frankly the feeling is indescribably wonderful.

Half way through my work a snake slithers across the surface of the pond, it draws up in front of me, raises its head and flicks its tongue in and out tasting the air as it fixes its eyes directly on me.

I freeze, totally motionless staring back, the best thing to do I reckon is nothing. The snake flicks its tongue in and out a couple more times and then turns and moves on – gliding across the water and onto the bank and away. I have no idea what kind of snake it was, perhaps that is for the best and better still that we did not become closer acquaintances. Eventually the work finished I begrudgingly left the watering hole, determined if there is re-incarnation to sincerely ask the powers that might be if there is the opportunity, if it is at all possible to come back as a Hippopotamus. 

As I pack my bags for London I wonder what this trip will bring, each time I return its a special kind of catch up, as much as it is reconnecting with family and friends it’s also a catch up on how I am within myself, there in the city I call home where I’ve so much history, there after being away and trying to escape the past I will find out how I am actually doing. It’s time to find out.

Pond life, Italy

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