It’s odd how things happen when you’re not looking. Off we went to Rome, for just one night last week, and when we got home the big field maple (Acer campestre) had gone from more-or-less summer-green to yellow as can be, with lots of leaves missing.
The temperature hadn’t plummeted. There was no huge storm – no rain at all in fact I’m told, unlike in Rome where I ventured out to do some shopping and scuttled straight back to the lovely new Casa Fabbrini where we were staying, having travelled with no rain gear at all. (I got a shopping trip in the following morning, finally managing to replace some of my antiquated knitwear.) But the maple had turned some autumnal corner, very swiftly.
The tree was not the only surprise. As I sat in the kitchen after we got back, I was shot out of my chair by what sounded like a banshee in the living room. L was clattering about at the stove, quite oblivious. I concluded that it must be one of the owls that haunt our valley, sitting outside on the pergola as I’ve found them before. There were a couple more distant-sounding hoots, then nothing.
The day after, though, I kept hearing things. I could tell that L (who is missing some bits of his full hearing range, the fallout from his DJing years) was doubting my sanity, but he bravely resisted the temptation to tell me I was completely loopy. So I moved into the living room to work, and listened for the rustlings. Yet another bird in the chimney. Still skeptical, L looked at me pityingly. But he valiantly humoured me, and helped me heave the cast-iron wood burner out of the fireplace to detached the flue.
Usually at this point in our rescue operations, some startled bird darts out, exits through the open window, and that’s that. But everything had gone eerily silent. It remained eerily silent for over an hour. Then with a great flapping and scraping, a big feathery bundle flopped out of the chimney hole, and flapped unsteadily up to the curtain rail. It was a tawny owl (Strix aluco), a big, befuddled, rather dilapidated one that could think of nothing better to do than perch there, right above the wide-open window, and blink.
We had the pleasure of its company for about a quarter of an hour before it realised the world was still there outside, and swooped off. We should put a net over the top of the chimney to stop this. They must perch up there on the chimney top, peer down, and think “that’s a nice hole for snuggling into” – then get stuck, the idiots.
Since then, our autumn-on-the-move has projected us back from fires-welcome-in-the-evening Umbria to balmy-summer-nights Amalfi Coast. Have I been here before at this wonderful, quiet time of year? I can’t imagine so, otherwise I would have the beauty of the Chorisia (Ceiba) speciosa – Silk Floss trees – firmly imprinted on my mind.
The example on the bar-terrace of the Hotel San Pietro where we’re staying is quite mesmerising. The waxy pink flowers are just beginning to fall. As I sat up there the other evening, watching the sun sink into the headland across the water, they rained down on me. There are so few sumptuously flowering trees that thrive outside the tropics (the Chorisia hails from South America), but this one definitely revels in the climate here. As C & I sped up the Costiera in a boat yesterday (L was on his bike, of course) to lunch at Lo Scoglio, dramatic pink splashes were dotted up the cliffsides.
It’s very common these days to stay in hotels where they proudly show you their vegetable gardens and announce “everything we serve in the restaurant comes from our own organic orto.” As garden designer and gardener, I have to employ all my diplomatic skills not to say “yes, one day’s meals… and then where do you buy the rest?” They’re almost always small for-show-only patches. Not here at Il San Pietro.
It’s a relatively recent addition to the remarkable cliff-hugging property, I’m told, though many of the plants look like they’ve been there for many years. Some genius has gathered up the ancient agricultural skills of the Amalfi Coast where I’m forever marvelling at quite how much can be cultivated on terrain so vertical that’s only really fit for gasping at from a boat off the coast. In a superb feat of engineering they’ve built walls in unthinkable places to create sufficient pockets of rich, black, sandy volcanic soil to grow lemons, olives and immense quantities of vegetables and herbs: feasibly quite enough to keep the hotel’s two restaurants going, I’d say.
Clambering up and down between the levels and the rows, with the sun glinting off the sea beyond, truly is very special.
I’ve realised that what makes my builder happiest are intricate, pain-staking jobs that require minute adjustments and, preferably, huge amounts of old-fashioned skill. He revels in them. The net result of this for me is that I can go to Rome for 36 hours, visit my project after two days and find… nothing has changed. Nothing. My heart sinks and I have to fight back anger and frustration.
On closer inspection, of course, I discover that something incredibly complicated has been achieved. But my immediate reaction is to shake him and shout “just build me a bloody wall, why don’t you!”
The afternoon last week when we returned from Rome he was, finally, putting a wall up. With large hollow bricks, this is a remarkably quick, immensely satisfying business: instant gratification as things grow with extraordinary swiftness. But the byzantine maze of tautly pulled strings and tiny white marks all over the floor (“watch where you’re putting your feet, we’ve got everything marked out to the last millimetre!”) were testimony to many hours spent calculating unthinkable minutiae before actually moving forward.
“When are you going to be out of here?” I asked him.
“Perhaps by the end of the year,” he said, very unconvinced.
I looked around at the chaos and thought “which year?”
“No, but then there’s Christmas and New Year in the middle,” he said. “Not by the end of the year. By February.”
“Beginning of February or end of February?” I asked. “I want you out by my birthday.”
“Fine,” he said. “Out by your birthday.” But he didn’t bother to ask me when my birthday was: better that way, for him, because he hasn’t really committed.
While we’re down here on the shiny Med he has three whole days without me breathing down his neck to make with the big bricks. I hope to find he has progressed in leaps and bounds towards our February ‘deadline’.