The coast road ran high above the cape; the sea was below, a sheer drop, and on all sides, as far as the hazy mountainous horizon. The sun was on all sides, too, as if the sky and the sea were two glasses magnifying it. Down below, against the jagged, irregular rocks of the cape, the calm water slapped without making foam. Amedeo Oliva climbed down a steep flight of steps, shouldering his bicycle; which he left in a shady place after closing the padlock. He continued down the steps amid spills of dry, yellow earth and agaves jutting into the void, and he was already looking around for the most comfortable stretch of rock where he could lie down. Under his arm he had a rolled up towel and, inside the towel, his bathing trunks and a book…
He was not, however a hasty, voracious reader. He had reached the age when re-reading a book for the second, third, or fourth time affords more pleasure than a first reading. And yet he still had many continents to discover. Every summer, the most laborious packing before the departure for the sea involved the heavy suitcase to be filled with books. Following the whims and dictates of the months of city life, each year Amedeo would choose certain famous books to reread and certain authors to essay for the first time. And there, on the rock, he went through them, lingering over sentences, often raising his eyes from the page to ponder, to collect his thoughts. At a certain point, raising his eyes in this way, he saw that on the little pebble beach below, in the inlet, a woman had appeared and was lying there.
(Italo Calvino, L’avventura di un lectore, 1958)
Tempio Boddista says the small sign, then a rocky road takes you up to it. There are figurines and offerings placed in hollows under the trees, but also something else, a fallen down structure of fences, broken bottles and toilet paper. We are a here for a silent retreat on a baking hillside above the Mediterranean, though not quite as silent as the slightly stern monk might like. Cars hoot as they go down the road with its blind corners; scooters quack and all kinds of other motors drone from the Ligurian coastline down below. The sounds of summer holidays, summer traffic and construction filter up to us, perched above the riviera where Keats and Byron used to come.
The monk has a good appetite: he wheels round the table disc so that we can reach everything in a silent ritual: no asking anyone to pass the pepper. Rice with coconut milk, cauliflower curries, a sack of perfectly ripe peaches, cheeses, tomatoes and jackfruit, thinly sliced marrow fried in dairy-free butter. It goes round again and again as we all help ourselves to seconds, thirds…The week before, five Sri Lankan monks had been here, leaving a stockpile of Buddhist foodstuffs that needed to be eaten. So the monk implies, anyway, as he painstakingly rinses out his bowl, flushing all the tiniest left over morsels, sweet and savoury, into a small glass, then drinking it. Nothing is to be wasted: napkins cut in half, the rifuti biologico bin getting its fair share, washing-up water poured on the vegetable patch after dinner.
The monk’s appetite is nothing compared to that of Steve, however, who spins the Lazy Susan round once more to take several hunks of bread, then proceeds to mop up every single droplet of sauce or dressing. Between the monk’s rinsing, and Steve’s mopping, the process can take upwards of 15 minutes. Still, it is a welcome relief from the nine hours of solitary meditation that these days involve. And, Steve has earned it, by hacking down branches, watering the tomatoes and the rucola. From 11 o’clock till lunchtime, we undergo “working meditation,” performing all the household chores that the monk needs done in a mindful fashion.
After two days I try to escape to the seaside below: I want to visit the Casa di Keats in the tourist town. But the monk overrules me, and after a series of protracted negotiations conducted via a notepad concerning our departure date and tidiness in the bathroom, gives a me a book about mindfulness (underlined) which I can read if I find all the cross-legged sitting a bit much, and which I devour in a morning, starved of outside stimuli. “If you walk, walk. If you run, run,” says one Zen master, “But above all, don’t wobble.”
Thinking back on the chain of events which had brought me to this Mediterranean hillside (something I had ample time to do), I reflected that Steve always made a point of volunteering for some manual labour on arriving at any of the alternative settlements that we always seemed to visit together, any kind of free-thinking establishment offering free lodging. At the forest camp outside Edinburgh, I remember we went to harvest wooden pallets round the back of IKEA, plus some of those heavy wooden bobbins that they wind cables on. We wheeled them back across the peri-industrial fields.
“A table, or a sitting place, or some new kind of tree house maybe!”
In the event, I think they were simply unbolted and burned on that fire around which clustered some of the more abject members of the traveller community. There was the girl (one of the Rainbow People) who annoyed us all heartily with tales of how after years of studying homoeopathy and its related disciplines, remedies and cosmologies, she now “knew everything.” Her showing me how to make “Forest Camp Coffee” involved taking one of the toxic IKEA embers and plunging it into the simmering pan. It frothed and steamed as she proclaimed it a prime manifestation of the Rainbow Way. I quietly poured my cup behind a rock.
Then there was the impish guy in tight leather trousers who kept reassuring us that everything was “Shantih! Shantih! and tapping arhythmically on an empty tin. His wife however had a huge to suppurating boil on her leg which she eventually showed me, asking if I, as a resident of the city beyond, knew where she could get “a free medicine.” Almost all the skin of her thigh had turned an awful green colour, and in her great wisdom, the homoeopath winced audibly when she saw it. I told her how to get to A and E, and she went off alone in a rusty car.
That was the last time I saw them, that the strange mouldering protest camp in a tiny dell beyond the ring road, where tensions were running high between the punky locals (teenage girls in big Doc Marten’s who looked like runaways) and the gentler people from central Europe with bad teeth, who Rafaella said made her think of vampires. Dolly the sheep had been cloned nearby; wind farms dotted the horizon and the trees were soon to make away for an enormous biotech science park called the Technopole – an odd part of the world. There was a falling out eventually; the omnipotent homoeopath suddenly began accusing everyone of stealing the cracked half-a-coconut that she had been drinking the Rainbow Coffee out of. Evidently it had been a present from some guru, but even in this rather desperate, cash-strapped, tobacco-stained settlement, it was hardly something worth pocketing.
Steve, Rafaella and I left the camp and walked into the said surrounding field for some peace, where an ancient Rapunzel-like tower was surrounded by an odd paddock of rusted security fence. Inside, the spiral stairwell had eroded almost totally: you looked up and saw the sky of that fine, high summer. I think they felt somewhat ashamed of the rain-beaten treehouses down below; they wanted to show me the places they had been, closer approaches to the self-sufficient utopias that we all dream of, the valley in Italy where they lived, the Alps and the Appenines, the other Europe that school exchanges, rough guides and city breaks had hardly brought me to.
So I flew over to Milan, cursing the budget airline I was on for being so much cheaper than the trains I had wanted to take, sleepers across Europethat I tried to cobble together itineraries for during the week before I left, crouched over the Internet, really needing a holiday. The big, dirty fashion capital fell away eventually and by the end of the first day I was right at the top of a valley inLiguria, with steep green walls, in a protected village of dry stone and groaning orchards. There were green meadows on the mountain tops, crossed by cows and occasionally a lone toot as small Italian cars warned each other round the bends of the twisty valley road that led up and up past antique mills, churches, geranium flowerpots, everything gradually thinning out until we reached the top. Steve, Rafaella and I in that tiny car, whooping round the bends, everyone backseat driving at the same time, grazing the lavender bushes so that the smell filled the air for a second.
“Piano, Steve! And you change a gear!”
“Amore! Cinquante per ora – please just let me drive.”
We arrived at Tonno (Tuna would seem to be the obvious translation, but apparently the word stem is much older, something like the Old English “ tun”, meaning small settlement) and Steve showed me his various vegetable patches dotted around the burbling fountains and fruit trees of the village. They were wild, overgrown, asymmetrical, covered in nettles but also hugely productive and free from all pests. I thought mournfully of my aphid-ridden B&Q gro-bags at the bottom of the garden.
We drank coffee in their rambling half-finished house: windchimes, a stock of simple provisions, etchings and engravings, shelves of Buddhism but also the great Europeans: Rilke, Thomas Mann, Flaubert, the Brontes, Calvino and Keats of course. The view from the balcony plunged down the valley and fireflies came out at night. When you looked down the path leading from the front door, a staggered circuit of pinpricks flashing. They beckoned us down a path leading across the slopes out of the village.
We drank from a spring coming out of the slopes and then went to bed. I slept in the attic, halfway through Steve’s renovation and still largely encrusted in black soot from when the early inhabitants had let the smoke of winter fires filter upwards into the roof. The next day I retraced our steps and found that the path led along a steep drop – one false step during the fairy dance and I would have been sliding down an algae-covered rock face for some 200 yards before dropping into the maw of the valley. We carried on, slowly walking down to the river through the chestnut, hazelnut and beech trees. We passed an abandoned mill, where the locals used to grind flour from chestnuts up until the 1960s, Steve said. For lunch, apart from the simple pasta with olive oil and little else, we also had amarena, sour cherries harvested that morning as he and I switched between English, French and some strange pidgin halfway between Afrikaans and Flemish.
I dropped them in the cold current and watched them collect in a pool below, orbs of high summer red around the green, green boulders. I also tried matching up the quartzite veins that ran through all the rock here to make “a composition” as Steve put it. He had some different ideas about landscape art, even suggesting we return here with capes and hats, then stand motionless below the waterfall. I couldn’t quite follow that idea, but it didn’t matter; we went on collecting the white-veined rocks, Steve emerging from the undergrowth with huge, prised out slabs, Rafaella pondering some slim Buddhist text ahead of the retreat, butterflies settling on the straw hat that would come to play such an important part on this trip, and emerge looking so battered after I had worn, waved and sat on it in the Alps.
“I was gonna tell you not to crush it so much,” he said as they dropped me off at the station two weeks later, “but I thought I wouldn’t bust your balls – it will restore.”
As we collected the rocks, the most obvious specimens, the cleanest lines, disappeared first. So the edges of the composition, spreading through the pools, became more diffuse, with secondary, messy lines and branching veins. It was generating its own logic, I told Steve, as these things do. Clearly I was beginning to feel very organic and in place within this green valley, where (that rare thing) nature was taking back its ground, growing over the abandoned mill and the dry-stone terraces, caving in the roofs of outlying buildings.
But then all of a sudden we had started a journey to the Buddhist retreat, a train ride I found overwhelming in its constant alternation between dark tunnels and the brilliant glare of the Mediterranean villages. Genoa, Levanto, Cinque Terra, La Spezia, Lerici – we would retrace our steps more slowly on the way back, but for now this headlong journey to the retreat on the baking slopes, where the monk appeared like a wraith amid the trees on the road we trudged up. He looked as over and exchanged a few pleasantries, and already I felt I was letting him down. The creeping suspicion that this slightly overweight, balding, bespectacled and slightly goggle-eyed man with a distinct resemblance to Philip Larkin did not like me was only one of a thousand fears, regrets and utterly pointless thoughts that began to ripple out during three days of silence, of being horribly alone with yourself.
“Maybe you can ordinate your stuff,” said Steve before we began. I looked around the corrugated iron cabin where we lodged, and which by 7 a.m. was already like an oven, way too hot for a quick nap after lengthy meditation and breakfast sessions. Clearly things were getting heavy for him too as the retreat progressed. Is everything okay? I gestured after a session in which he had been sniffing, flaring his eyes, nipping at insects which he would normally have tolerated or celebrated. He made a series of gestures indicating a huge wave swelling and breaking on his head, then went off to sleep in the forest. I broke the rules and began writing this entry that now culminates in a dirty cafe corner of an awful airport. Writing with appropriate slowness, though, on a rock in the forest during this dry, dusty, dissatisfying retreat that was somehow the fulcrum of the whole trip.
The day I make my escape, Steve and I walk down the hill to the main road, still in silence as we shoulder our packs. Have I forced him to leave early against his will? Failed some test of the spirit, revealed myself as a glib, sun-seeking tourist after all? He boards buses and trains morosely, blatantly not bothering with the fare. I sit at the window, watching the Ligurian Riviera swing past again, the Gulf of Poets that I never did get to visit. We emerge from the one of the tunnels at a bright, hyper-touristic fishing village, play kick ups with kids round the station for a while, then make our way to the beach. A coffee (our first in days) begins to loosen our tongues and by the time we get to the salty water and sunbathing boulders, conversation is streaming out of us. Steve engages anyone we can see, switching between languages. He talks to pretty Belgian girls while maintaining a side commentary about their boring boyfriends, simultaneously explaining to me the process whereby he had grammatically deformed his French into Italian, and so learnt it in record time.
“Not even paying for the Via Del Amore – what a drip. And when his girlfriend is such a mooi meisie. Like something from Asterix, no?” Asterix in Belgium, I had explained to Steve, was, together with King Leopold, my only frame of reference for the country where he came from.
Europeans were on the move, a pan-European holiday spirit in the air. Couples wearing rucksacks back and front, looking over guidebooks in the train, striking out to a new part of this (it struck me now) big, fascinating continent where people enjoyed talking to each other. For a time our small rail carriage became the travellers’ compartment, the non-air con section where people with big hair could lean out the window and get into the spirit of things. With Americans, however, Steve was considerably less accommodating. When a couple of confident, burnished girls at a cash machine ask if rooms for rent signs mean bedrooms are available, I am just about to ask for clarification on this slightly odd enquiry, when Steve explodes:
“I’ve not even gonna answer that question. I am sorry, but that is such an American question. Please!”
Dutch people were suspect also: he found them too fancy, while visits to the greengrocer or foccaceria would usually develop into a debate about why the olives were so expensive, why the tomatoes weren’t local, why there was no bread without animal fat. As we made our progress along the coast, I realised that after his life in the mountain village, Steve was somewhat highly strung, sensitised. The beauty of a cove or a staircase might floor him for whole minutes, but such epiphanies could be rapidly toppled by an offensive pair of sunglasses or a non-vegan ice cream. A fine balance as we were hiked between the villages, eschewing the scenic boardwalks which you had to pay for, trekking up and over the steep hills that separated the five famous towns. Since the idea of paying for a piece of ground to lay our bodies on was a not even remotely a possibility, we camped high up above a grove of pines as the Mediterranean sunset took its sweet time. There was a simple hut that we slept on the porch of, and basil bushes that we chewed in lieu of toothpaste. Slipping in and out of the crowded streets, filling water bottles from the communal fountains, talking to the holidaymakers in the cafes, then leaving them to their tariffs and timetables – it was a good way to travel.
We put down the packs above the pine grove, unrolled sleeping mats in the dusty vegetation at the end of that day and let some more of the bottled up speech flow out of us as the moon went up. I thought again of Keats and Byron down there in the day, greedily transforming lived experience into words, and me following their example, unable to go three days without writing something. I talked about it at length as the moonlight picked out small boats around the headlines, and the area stayed warm with the scent of growing things. The Western artist, the lone Romantic spewing out words versus the silent mystic with the ability to let it go, let it flow.
It seemed like such a fundamental division to me, but Steve didn’t see it that way at all. Wasn’t there a kind of gap right at the heart of it, a “non-attachment”? And when he put it like that, I thought of how Shakespeare is nowhere to be found in his plays, and even Keats, of course, Keats who spoke of how, if a small bird came and picked about in the gravel outside his window, he would in a way become that bird, send part of himself out to inhabit it. So in true Buddhist fashion, we agreed that it was a case of both-and rather than either/or, and carried on making our way along that coastline that I had seen in a series of bright flashes from the train.
The whole of Liguria seemed mountainous, right up to the coastline, so we were always entering or exiting tunnels in that rattling hippy carriage where everyone exchanged addresses and e-mails and I had the sense that, for once, they would all track each other down eventually. There were houses to be squatted in Lausanne, a whole village somewhere in Tuscany had been taken over by eco-warriors. It sounded infinitely preferable to a parallel process that I was reading about in the papers: whole Italian villages bought up and preserved by German travel consortiums. The last two remaining residents said it was better than the place being abandoned altogether.
The valley where Steve and Rafa lived was full of abandoned villages. I was longing to get back there, to get this tourist strip over with and walk down to those crumbled stone buildings where, on moss-covered, lichen-infiltrated rocks under the leafy glow of the chestnut and beech trees, I could swear I found the very essence of greenness, or at least a soft, luminous kind that you really can’t go wrong with.
After about a week of holiday, I had finally managed to get a film for my camera. So many scenes had already passed by unrecorded, but I consoled myself with the fact that this would be a good opening shot: Steve coming up the steps from the small beach just below the rail station. The dark passage, a figure under an arch of light burning off the surface of the blue Mediterranean which seemed to capture something of this alternately pitch-black and sunstruck part of the world.
Except that the shutter didn’t click, and Steve soon lost patience with the procedure.
“Screw that photo man! This is our train – run!”
We climbed on with wet trunks and climbed off at the next station along. Not taking photographs – I could easily get used to that. It was Buddhist, no doubt, and I found further justification for it in the book of stories by Italo Calvino that I had sneakily carried on reading behind a bush at the retreat.
“Because, once you’ve begun,” he would preach, “There is no reason why you should stop. The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow…. you only have to start saying of something: “How beautiful. We must photograph it!” And you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore in order really to live you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second, to madness.”
“You’re the one who’s mad and stupid,” his friends would say to him, “And a pain in the ass, into the bargain.”
Calvino, I realised as I read his brilliant, precocious stories, was from Liguria, and so the dilemma about not trying to grab selfishly, romantically at the world around me was supplanted by a slightly different problem. Calvino’s descriptions were so vivid that his prose gradually invaded and usurped my experience; the word pictures of the rocky coast pre-empted reality. Steve threw himself off a boulder into the sea, then wouldn’t let up until I had done the same. On cue, a rock jumper appeared as incidental detail in the story of a beachside flirtation. And it soon became uncanny how every experience I had found its correlative in the stories, sometimes before it happened, sometimes afterward in one long, intimate love affair between an author and the part of the world he so obviously craved writing about, his home ground.
Normally you find yourself reading against the grain of a place, but here we splashed around in the tepid Mediterranean tideline amongst holidaymakers, young, old, browned, sagging or pert, swimming or reclining, and there it was on the page, in a story about a middle-aged woman who loses the bottom half of her swimsuit while bathing:
What she would have preferred never to look at was the beach. And she looked at it. Bells were ringing noon, and on the sand the great umbrellas with black and yellow concentric circles were casting black shadows in which the bodies became flat, and the teeming of the bathers spilled into the sea, and none of the boats was on the shore now, and as soon as one returned it was seized even before it could touch bottom, and the black rim of the blue expanse was disturbed by constant explosions of white splashing, especially behind the ropes, where the horde of children was roiling; and at every bland wave a shouting arose, its notes immediately swallowed up by the blast. Just off that beach, she was naked.
The next stop north was a bigger coastal resort, where Rafaella had spent her summers as a teenager, she told me, staying in her parent’s holiday flat in Augusts when they always travelled elsewhere. She met us again, having finished her retreat, looking calm and healthy. She knew how it all worked here, and soon we were paddling out across the bay to a grotto. The sun flickered in the through the small opening from the sea, but also through a huge window in the rock above, making the walls of this sea cave go red.
Sure enough, “The Adventure of a Poet” took one straight to the heart of such a place. In fact, given the slightly cloudy quality of the Med that I was in, and the suspicion that I was going to see a plaster or something similar floating past my goggles at any moment, and given that my single canoe (I finally could not ignore this on the long paddle back) undeniably smelt of piss – given all this, Calvino’s description of a man and his lover sunbathing together in an isolated, pristine cove utterly transcended what I was seeing. Things were now no longer living up to his descriptions or their reputations, even as the man in the story, the poet, reflected how he could not approach this beauty in his work, was uncomfortable, ill at ease in this, the heart of light, and only felt the words flowing back when they returned to the shore in all its human poverty.
The coastal strip seen from the boat is the contrary of what the beauty of nature had been communicating to him a little earlier: there every word failed, while here there was a turmoil of words that crowded into his mind: words to describe every wart, every hair on the thin, ill shaven face of the old fisherman, every silver scale of the mullet. The description goes on for pages until the words become thick, woven one into the other, with no place between the lines, until little by little they could no longer be distinguished, it was a tangle from which even the tiniest white spaces were vanishing and only the black remained, the most total black, impenetrable, desperate as a scream.
We arrive at Genoa Plaza Principe late at night and it is all too evident that to a young man who has just got off the train, the city – as everyone must know – seems like one big station: no matter how much he walks about, the streets are still squalid, garages, warehouses, cafes with zinc counters, trucks discharging stinking gas in his face. Steve and Rafa have begun talking continuously, almost like a talking cure to stave off exhaustion. We stumble through the dark streets and the most extraordinary stories pour out of them. About when they lived in Amsterdam and the floor of the two room flat not given over to growing things was always full of people that they had offered to put up at short notice: travelling musicians, Polish immigrants, urban squatters. About how once some “fancy” couple had tried to enter into the spirit of it all but then obviously felt out of their depth:
“And they just disappear while we walked through the streets,” said Rafaella, in hysterical laughter, “They scared of us! They escape!”
I couldn’t imagine melting away into these dark alleys. Genoa is a large, industrial city, but with the biggest intact mediaeval centre in Europe. So big that it is not a preserved heritage spot, but a rundown area next to the docks, an authentic, working part of the city where many of the South American immigrants live, and which begins to take on an authentically mediaeval feel as we trudge through winding alleys, under grand walls and doorways streaked with urine.
We ring at one of the most impressive and are let in by some of Rafa’s friends from university who have offered to put us up at short notice. Remarkably short notice: Steve fed some coins into a payphone around midnight, and now here we were after the two hour train journey along the final leg of the coast. But still the talking continued – we entered a low-ceilinged, beautiful wooden garrett at the top of one of these ominous tenements and people were talking furiously. Not just making jokes or ironic observations but discoursing at full throttle. About the G8 in Germany and buses in the Himalayas, street theatre, what Milano was really like… they politely kept me informed about the general gist of conversation but eventually I went and collapsed on one of the bunks of a housemate who insisted on me having a bed. He had very kindly decided to sleep on the floor, but I later learnt that conversation between those three continued unabated all night. They were still expounding, gesturing at the foot of the bed as it got light.
“Whoa – that a guy really had a lot to let out. I could hardly have the space to speak.”
For Steve to say that, it really must have been the talkathon to end all talkathons, the final climax to the torrent of conversation that had been loosened after the Buddhist retreat.
The next day we slowly made our way through the city. Steve strode determinedly across the roads, reacting with gusto when a high-fashion couple on a scooter gave us the finger for slowing down traffic. They swept onward after a drive-by exchange of insults which both parties seemed to enjoy immensely.
“Viva Italia! Viva!” shouted Steve with his arms up raised, while Rafa debated with the sharply dressed Carabinieri about the legislation concerning public dress code which her boyfriend was flouting as we strode through the station to platform.
“You not allowed no to wear a shirt in public? I never heard it before.”
When we got back to the village, the weather was still baking hot but the sour cherry trees were past their prime. I would not be able to make the composition of red pools and green boulders after all, and without a functioning camera I was reluctant anyway. I went down to find our white-veined rocks already covered in a fine green algae. I finished Calvino’s stories sitting on a bench in a forest clearing that Rafaella called her fairy field. The last piece was a savage little satire about development on the riviera, “A Plunge into Real Estate.”
Back in the village we walked past an old house being done up by a Sicilian with long hair and blackened teeth. Some sort of Rat Pack imitator was blaring out, a contemporary crooner like Michael Bublé or Jamie Cullum.
“Hey Hedley! Come up here, we havin’ a party.”
I walked up through the scaffolding to find Steve and the builder in the throes of a passionate dance that involved the Sicilian playing double bass on a piece of flex and Steve singing into a length of tubing, both sashaying madly through the rubble. It all built to a massive crescendo with the builder having put on some DIY red dishcloth like a bonnet, blowing kisses across the room, looking like a toothless Yasser Arafat as Bublé sang about his baby going away.
The tone of this last Calvino story was different, though, all about growth and spoilt places, whereas here nature was taking back her ground. We went to the Alps after this, but these were not part of Calvino’s geography – they seemed like an afterthought somehow, and anyway, what can you say about the Alps? Some other guests had arrived also. The wheel of karma had brought a friend of a friend of Steve’s sister, who rang out of the blue and asked if she and her boyfriend could stay. Steve and Rafaella responded with reckless hospitality, telling them “to enjoy for a few days a house” while we trekked up and then straight back down an Alpine valley. Steve was suspicious at first, looking at the trainers, military caps and chic hippy gear of the new arrivals, thinking that this too might be another Dutch couple out of their depth, that they might be, in a word, fancy.
Before we left for mountain trip, he set them a little task, asking if they could perhaps water the vegetable patches while we were away. I had done one stint in the uppermost enclosure, crouching down in the tomatoes, feeding the small trickle from the hosepipe into the soil or spraying it with my thumb to a fine vapour so that strong tomato plant scent rose off the leaves. They passed the test much more fully – the Dutch guy had spent just about all day leading the pipe from the fountain in the village to the far-flung stands of pumpkins and corn. His girlfriend had made jam from the plum trees that had just come into fruit. She talked thoughtfully about some stint in New Zealand, an experience that was clearly still flooding her thoughts and memories, even her dreams. He showed us the tiny car that he had just bought, and which they had driven through Europe. After a tumultuous hailstorm in Switzerland, the vehicle looked like it had contracted a serious case of smallpox – the aluminium chassis was studied and dented all over like a golf ball.
The talking continued that evening (my last) and would continue all summer, I sensed, with freak weather and forest fires stretched out over Europe, record temperatures in Sicily, half of Yorkshire underwater. Voices would be raised, that was about all you could say for certain, but that night we also discovered an incredible silence, after an incendiary didgeridoo session during which Steve asked us to turn out the lights to “enter into the sound better”, just as he had when I met them in that small stone bothy on the Isle of Hoy, north of north Scotland. Rafa told me that sometimes she rang the phone box there, the incongruous red one halfway up the slopes above Rackwick. She just rang to hear it ringing, and thought of it there in the wind and blustery sea weather of that far-flung island.