For many years I have been fantasising about renting a villa in Tuscany. Not just any old villa, but one surrounded by olive trees, lemon trees, with swimming pool and maybe a hot tub thrown in for good measure The sheets would be changed every morning (Egyptian cotton 400 thread count of course), by a wonderful woman called Beatrice and her niece Mariola ..
Beatrice would come back in the evenings and cook us amazing food, with vegetables and fruit from her organic garden which is her pride and joy. We would have Chianti and a crisp white wine from the region and dine in the loggia and watch the sun go down..Paulo ..sorry haven’t I mentioned Beatrice’s husband?. He is lovely of course, ..would come and collect Beatrice. Paulo also has a large car and could take us on day trips to Florence and Lucca.
Bicycles for the active, would also be provided whilst I would sit lazily by the pool reading and keeping an eye on the grandchildren. Over the years, friends would add to my fantasy villa, suggesting maybe some air conditioning, muslin curtains, lots of space, etc and definitely modern bathrooms. All bedrooms en suite of course.
Of course, this was just a dream but by a strange, ironic twist of fate, in the same week my Oncologist gave me bad news about my cancer, the old lady (she was 101 when she died) and I had been her ‘eyes’ for many years as she had macular degeneration, died and left me a large legacy.. It quite overwhelmed me..but not for long! Her executor, on account of my condition, fast tracked the money in to my account and I began searching for the perfect villa.
OK so it hasn’t got a hot tub and probably not a Beatrice or Paulo but the Villa Zacconi, surrounded by pine trees, really appoealed to me. Have a look…..http://www.tuscanynow.com/villa-zacconi-x-11-people-id-4742
Sooooo Tuscany here I come! With my son, my daughter in law and two grandchildren and my friend. We are going to do it in style and no budgeting allowed…lol…in two and a half weeks I will be staying in my dream villa.
Of course in an ideal world I would prefer to be cancer free and put the dream away, But this is what I have been handed so I intend it to be a holiday none of us will ever forget. Oh yes, before I forget, you will all be very welcome to join us:. Beatrice will fit you in somehow, she is very clever like that!
Dr Foster was much loved by the villagers and had been adored by his late mother. He was a short man, rather square in shape, with a large amiable head. He lived alone in a house that would make you gasp or splutter, depending on your sense of humour or lack of. His Great Grandfather Aloysius Ignatius Foster had come back from his travels in New Orleans and built this house for his beloved wife., If you can picture pale green antibellum,with great white columns, so far so good, ….with a thatched roof… you will have more or less the picture. It was at the end of a long drive and, some would mutter, thankfully hidden by trees to anyone passing by.
When Dr Foster came back from working in a Clinic in Galway, he brought back with him his new wife, Imelda. The villagers were taken aback as it had never occurred to anyone that their beloved doctor would ever need something as mundane as a wife. Why, he didn’t even have any cows for her to milk, no chickens to feed! She would indeed have a lady’s life. And, they mused doubtfully, she was a foreigner (from Galway), how on earth would she fit in.
Well Imelda fully lived up to the ladylike image, and fit in she did. She had huge amounts of energy, was thin and nut brown and did good works, and she adored her husband with a wild and fiery passion which was almost too much for the man, but he didn’t complain as she had a temper to match her passion. One day she told him she needed a maid to help her in the house and she would send a ,essage to a woman in Ennis who could supply one. ‘You must have anything you need, my beloved’ he said absent mindedly patting her skinny rump.
When the bus stopped in the village, offloading its passengers, the boys, well they were men really, standing on the corner watched and greeted familiar faces. She was the last to get off the bus and she was a beauty. About 18 or 19, long glossy auburn hair and a body that no cheap coat could hide. She seemed to glide and not walk., The doctor’s wife would not be happy.
Not only was Imelda not happy but she lived in constant, gnawing fear that this hussy would take her husband away from her. She was sure of it. It kept her awake most nights a she watched him snoring gently, his large head laid benignly on the pillow. She would die if he was taken away from her. The strange thing was that the good doctor hardly noticed that this beauteus girl lived in their midst.
She began finding fault with everything the girl did. She followed her around the house silently, making the girl nervous until she started dropping things. Nothing valuable, she just became clumsy and cack handed and her cooking became inedible. When she found a dead magpie in her bed one night, she could take no more. She got on the bus the next day and was heard mumbling wildly about witches and spells, and was never heard of again.
Whatever Imelda said about her requirements to the woman in Ennis, however delicately she put her needs, her prayers were answered when she went once more to meet the bus. For the girl who alighted this time, her name was Molly, was as ugly as sin with one eye over the horizon and one straight ahead. She fitted into their household as if she had always been there, She cooked like a dream, was a tireless worker, and had the sunniest of natures. Everyone in the village grew to love her, she could trade insults with the lads on the corner like she was one of them and was as ribald and witty as any of them. She adopted the name Foster as she did not appear to have one of her own. Imelda was happy and Dr Foster heaved a sigh of relief. Peace reigned once more in their household.
Molly lived with them and nursed them when they became infirm. When they died, both in the same year, she found that the strange pale green house was now hers and she lived there happily until she died. The house grew dilapidated very fast without the loving care of Molly, the thatched roof rotted and the windows caved in; only the pillars stood proud and free, a reminder of a romantic man’s dream.
My Grandma was in love with a carpenter from Ennis, Co Clare. but her father, (who had eight daughters to find husbands for), got a better offer for her, a man with land, and land being more revered than any craft or profession, the deal was done. And so, on 13 February 1896, she was forced into a marriage with a farmer who was about 17 years older than her. He could have picked any of the other daughters but he picked my Grandma.
He was a man of prudent habits, he had a good bit of land, cows, chickens, money carefully saved, was quiet and dour by nature, and by all accounts was fond of his mother who was everything my Grandma was not.
Who knows how things would have turned out if my Grandma had married the carpenter? Would she have been as wild, careless and profligate as she turned out to be, wedded to a man she had no feelings for? Mind you, she had six children by him. whether this sprung from lust, duty or a mutual despair, one can only speculate. It may even have been a passionate relationship, unlikely as that would have seemed. Whatever it was, I know for sure that their souls and dreams would have been in total discord.
She was a terrible cook. I can still feel the lumps of flour in the careless pancakes she made over the open fire. Her chickens would go missing on a regular basis, the milk left to curdle, the cows moaning with full udders. And she spent or gave away every penny that my Grandfather had so carefully saved Anyone knocking on her door would never go away empty handed. She loved music and singing and dancing and would welcome any man or woman to their home, who could play the fiddle or penny whistle or sing 60 verses of Sean South from Garryowen. She even welcomed travelling people who were generally viewed with distrust among the villagers.
When his own father died, he quickly moved his mother in to live with them. This, of course, gave a bit of stability to what he considered to be a chaotic, out of control life My Grandma willingly handed over the running of the household to this woman and continued to be a ‘party girl’ to the end of her days. He died years before her and I often wonder if he felt a sense of relief at the end.
She lived on for many more years, independent, feckless, penniless, and with a lust for life which time never quenched.
I am walking my dog down our street for her evening stroll. It is summer and It is airless as only London in a heatwave can be, as if all the buildings around us are breathing out short puffs of heat. I am enjoying it in a listless, slightly tortured way, but not so my dog as she stops now and then and pretends she is looking at something interesting in the distance, dawdling for time. Her breed comes from the north of Japan and her coat is thick to keep out the cold; she is not built for heat..
Roars are coming from the Scottish pub on the corner as Celtic are playing Inverness and one of them has scored, don’t mind which really. A tall young man, his body tense and wired, is walking up and down outside the pub, talking on his mobile, oblivious to the positive energy inside. ‘You aren’t listening to me’; he shouts angrily, his arms waving ‘why don’t you ever listen to me?’.
I observe the new window boxes in the basement of 46, very neat. Purple, white, purple, white, and in a grey, fancy, metal container. Not my kind of thing really but Val, who is brushing her doormat looks up as I pass by and I make admiring noises. ‘Am so sorry about Saturday’ she says ‘ Saturday?’ I answer. ‘Well it was him…’ she gestured at the open door ‘and that bloody Gay Pride march’ her mouth at the ready to tell me more. ‘I heard nothing’ I say quickly before she unloads something she may regret. She looks relieved and my dog and I carry on.
The next house always makes me smile. It has a disorderly, ramshackle air about it. Right now there are masses of pots all carefully filled with what I am sure are weeds. Beside them rests an old bike with a sign on the side, faded but still legible, which says ‘Cafe Dublino’. A mystery man with a baby lives here and he once told me that the bike is about 100 years old. ‘Did you get it in Ireland’ I had asked him excitedly. ‘No’ he said casually, ‘I found it in a ditch in Kuala Lumpur’ I was so enchanted with this piece of information that I didn’t ask him anything further. Like getting swept away with the beauty of the title of a book and then reading it almost as an afterthought.
The dog pauses again and I mutter under my breath but am quite enjoying the slow meandering and seeing my street in a lazy and affectionate light through a haze of heat. Here at No 42 is the artist who is very private, speaks toot nobody and walks quickly. She has a big urn outside her door with purple petunias. What is it with purple, I wonder idly. My own window boxes are a riot of pink and white and blue, rather vulgar I suppose, but it pleases me.
The woman from Somalia, at 40A, who has the most beautiful smile and walks with the aid of a stick on account of being kicked by soldiers in her home country, has a window box of red and pink geraniums but because I like this woman the clash of colours doesn’t offend me. We often chat when we meet and she says her crushed spine is the will of God and she must accept it. I do not agree as I don’t believe in all that accepting stuff, but say nothing.
On the corner of my street, just before we turn back for home, a No 36 bus gets stuck as the driver has followed the ‘Diversion’ sign and turned down the wrong road. Lots of people I have never seen before, appear from their homes and start shouting and gesturing and standing in front of their parked cars with arms outstretched as if to protect their precious pieces of steel.The driver of the bus is getting flustered as he cannot go forwards nor backwards and the passengers are fanning themselves with newspapers and hats.. For some reason my dog and I find this very funny (well I do anyway, am not sure if dog has much of a sense of humour these days), so we stand on the corner and watch. It occurs to me, and makes me smile, that I am now, officially, the old biddy with dog who stands and stares at the most mundane happenings. Now, everyone is shouting instructions, some even screaming, and we leave them to it. It is just so unusual to see a big red bus down our little street and, pardon the pun, it causes a little ‘diversion’.
The aroma from the shisha pipes outside the cafe on the corner, is pleasant and mild tonight. Sometimes I am sure it has more than herbs burning and maybe an innocent passer by might take a deep breath which might be most calming and perhaps cheer them up a bit. The young couple at 52 are having a barbecue which doesn’t smell quite so pleasant.
The walk has only been down one side of my street and round the corner but has taken a long time. I make allowances for my dog as she is 15 and cranky now and I have to guide her around lamp posts as her sight is bad. I am enjoying the indolent evening walk, so unlike the morning one which is always a bit rushed,, On a good day we reach the park and on a slow day we go half way.
The neighbours at 28 are still rowing but in a subdued kind of way. I have never actually heard what they shout at each other, perhaps it is just a way of life for them. Tonight, because of the heat, it has a lazy, careless tone to it as if their hearts aren’t in it.
The dog is relieved the walk and her business is over and although she goes right past our gate, I guide her back and coax her down the stairs, hoping she does not understand the words blind, bat, senile, and so forth. All said with immense love, of course.
I had first become obsessed with the artist when I was recovering from a bunion operation which had gone badly wrong. I might have guessed, just before I was anaesthised, as the surgeon lifted my left leg in the air playfully looking me straight in my whoozy eyes and said ‘it IS the left leg isn’t it, Mary?’. He was smiling as he said it but my silent scream of panic was not heard as I slipped into unconsciousness. As it happens, he operated on the right leg but his joke turned out to be an omen of things to come. I will not bore the reader with the details, as really this story is not about my bunion. Not at all, far from it.
There followed many weeks of recuperation, long, mind numbing days when I couldn’t be out and about and attending the many classes I had signed up to after my retirement. . My friends visited me, of course and all the members of my Singing Group came to see me, keeping me up to date with the new songs they were tackling. I am not sure, but I think it was Eileen of the Group who brought me a heap of magazines to read. Not my usual style as she was very involved with her Painting Group (free to over 60’s) so the magazines were a bit arty farty.
It was a thundery, humid day and I was feeling hot and cranky as I leafed listlessly through Stained Glass for Beginners, when a page just leaped out at me, there is no other way I can describe it and went straight to my soul. It was a full page picture of a panel of stained glass but nothing like I had ever seen before. In fact I had only ever seen stained glass in the various churches I attended and they were usually sorrowful depictions of The Rosary or the Crucifiction and I had never paid much attention to them. Too dreary.
This was different. The colours, mostly glorious swathes of a deep, heart clenching blue, with touches of green and gold, it depicted a woman with long golden hair and this blue gown which trailed half way across the panel. The only touch of red in the picture was the blood on the knife she held in her white hands and the red on her lips. She was smiling. I had to know more. This is when my love affair with the artist began. I rang Eileen and found out that the artist was born in Dublin at the end of the 1800’s and this panel called ‘Evangeline the Unholy’ was one of a panel of three he had painted in 1925 and, joy of joys, all three were resting in the Victoria and Albert Museum, not very far from where I lived.
For some reason the discovery of this vibrant artist and the photo of the panel, touched me in a way I had never experienced (well you will know I have no knowledge of art and stuff). I looked at the photo time and time again until I knew every part of it even to where he had,cunningly and seamlessly placed the leaded bits which held the panel together. I just had to see it in reality and to find out the story behind it but I had to get the use of my legs back first.
And so came the day when unaided apart from one crutch, I set off. It felt like I was going to meet a lover, my heart pounding and a slight sweat breaking out; (mind this this could be because of the pain I was feeling in learning to walk again). The walk seemed endless and when I arrived at the Museum I had to sit down for ten minutes. I asked the nice man with a badge, where I would find the stained glass department and he pointed out a long steep staircase which seemed to stretch all the way into the roof. ‘No lift’, he said sympathetically, ‘historic building and all that guff’.
There followed ten minutes of sweat, pain, and groans as I painfully but determinedly climbed up those stairs, trying to keep the blue panel in the forefront of my mind, just to stop me from fainting. Amazing what the mind can do. Well, I found the three panels at the end of a long gallery and there were only one or two people viewing so I plonked myself on a seat and devoured the beauty before me. I could now follow the story and the sequence of events leading up to Evangeline’s murderouls deed.. I went up closer as my eyesight is not what it was, and that is when it happened.
All I can remember is stumbling, and tumbling forward and then lying there surrounded by shards of that beautiful blue. I quickly slid a small piece in my pocket before I fainted. The ambulance men came and I was whizzed off to hospital. I had quite a few cuts and my leg had given way on account of the faulty bunion operation. But the unkindest cut of all was when the V & A sued me for the loss of a priceless panel of stained glass. Can you believe it! Suing an old lady! I am still fighting them so we will see. In any event, I have a small piece of beauty which I keep by my window and when the sun shines through the blue, it reminds me of the eyes of my first love.
I read in the newspaper today; funny when you hear of someone or something you have never heard of, they then pop up all over the place! Anyway I read that there is an Exhibition planned in an art deco museum in a small town in Arizona which also houses some of HC’s (not being coy but don’t want to tell you his name and share him with everyone!). So I shall dig into my savings (that is if the V & A legal department don’t get to me first), and off I will go. I don’t have the crutch any more and have joined a Stability class so am sure there will be no more accidents, fingers crossed.
Wish me luck!
My heart always leaped in a boisterous way when the car rounded that last bend, and there it was as it had ever been, the small, stone house looking shabbier and smaller as the years went by. I often wondered how myself and my sister and brother had fitted in and where we had slept. But of course, I thought, as I manouvered down the narrow, stony lane, we were younger then, smaller, and it didn’t matter where you slept you would be so tired from the country air and the running around that you would just fold into each other and sleep where you fell.
My Grandma was standing at the half door waiting for me,as she always did. leaning on her stick. Who knows how long she had stood there, there was a timeless air about her, her once rangy frame dimished somehow, her dusty black beret perched on her straight grey hair. her face showing every event good and bad which had occurred in her life.
‘So you’re back’ was all she said as I hugged her, and she did as she always did, shifting awkwardly away from me but staying close enough to touch my face.
‘Yes, I am back again, I can’t keep away.’ I smiled, putting my bag down on the stone floor of the kitchen, with a sigh of contentment.
Her cool grey eyes, still as clear as a girls, looked sideways at me as she boiled a kettle over the open fire. ‘You’ve gone scrawny and it’s been a year since you were here, well seven months or thereabouts.’ Of course, we both knew exactly when I had last visited her, but she would never let me score a point or tell her a half truth; you had to have your wits about you whenever you talked with her. It had always been that way between us and I had grown used to it. I even welcomed it sometimes as it kept our conversations sharp and clear like a cool spring well. There were no misunderstandings any more, no dancing around each other., no compromising, and it was curiously restful. Of course we still had the occasional screeching, vicious row which would take us both by surprise and leave us winded, but not for long and soon forgotten.
We sat each side of the open fire and drank tea. She had made pancakes over a small circle of turf bits taken from the fire. She was adept at this way of cooking (it would be her version of a double oven), and she slathered the pancakes with her home made butter which ran lazily down my new blouse, but I didn’t care, We talked until it was almost dark, that purple lushness before the real night fell. You would only get that kind of sky in the west of Ireland . I put some more turf on the fire and she lit the tilly lamps and all you could hear was the quiet murmur of our voices and the snuffling of some animal rooting about outside. We talked of big things and small things until we could talk no more. She knew, without me telling her, that there was one very big thing I was keeping back but she was content to wait..
Later that night as I turned restlessly in the feather bed, on the other side of the curtain which separated us, I could hear Grandma’s wheezy breathing and the occasional groan of pain.
This was the woman who knew me like nobody else,who had been the strongest force in a sometimes shaky world, and this house was the only one where I felt safe and happy. But tomorrow all this would change and I would break her heart.
.Coward that I am, I wished that this night would go on for a long, long time
My Grandma was really getting on my nerves. I mean, much more than she usually did which was near enough every day. She knew full well that I hated to see her without her teeth because it made me feel sick and sometimes she would leave them sitting beside the gramophone for days and days. How she could eat her food I do not know . ‘Gums like razor blades’ she would boast as she snapped a carrot in two, all the while keeping her eyes on mine and laughing at my rage. Yes, I knew I should be respectful to her because she was old and crabby, well that’s what my Mum told me, but there are limits. I wasn’t very happy with Mum either but she was out of the way in Dublin and so she was safe from my ire.
When they had told me the news they made it sound as if it was the biggest adventure ever but in fact, and I told them so in no uncertain terms, I was being abandoned, for there is no other word for it, for the whole of the summer whilst my Mum had another baby as if she hadn’t enough already. I had to stay here with the old woman. I admit, and am not really sorry about it, that I behaved very badly when they told me. I was in such a fierce temper that I kicked over the bucket of milk which was kept in the corner of the room with a piece of muslin covering it and the whole stone floor was awash with the stuff. I ruined my new patent leather shoes and that is my only regret. They were probably bought for me as a bribe anyway. Grownups can be very sneaky like that.
When my Grandma had finished shouting at me and my mother had stopped crying, I knew that it would be useless to protest further. How could a nine year old girl (from the city I might add), fight against the force of these two country women? Later, when I had calmed down somewhat and my Mum was brushing my hair she told me she would probably have a girl this time and that it would be good company for me, wouldn’t it? I brightened up a bit at this although I knew at heart it was just more bribery. I was sick of all those boys anyway, there were five of them so far and it would be good to have someone on my side.
So there was an uneasy truce between the old woman and me but she was slow to forgive me for the spilling of the milk and she told me that two of the hens had stopped laying since all the commotion that day. ‘Hens’, she said , looking at me sideways with those pale grey eyes, ‘are very sensitive you know, and they need a calm atmosphere around them.’ This sounded like a kind of threat to me, but I said nothing. It would be a long summer and it was a very small cottage but I know that she left her teeth out just to annoy me. ‘Pernickity’ she would mutter under her breath when I tutted and glared at her in protest. I held my book up to my face whenever I passed the gramophone so I wouldn’t have to look at the awful things. Grandma merely laughed when I did this. I wrote long, complaining letters to my mother but got scant sympathy.
The months passed slowly and to be honest, I was enjoying myself and had made a few friends. They were a bit rough , girls from the nearby farm. but we would spend our days out in the sunshine and I would tell them about my life in the city as they had never left their village. And if I embroidered the truth a bit well they would never know that we all, all eight of us, lived in a tenement building in a bleak part of Dublin and seldom saw a green field and never the sea just a smelly canal and the equally smelly Liffey. Anyway they loved my stories.
When the fork went through my foot, that day, for a moment I felt nothing at all except I couldn’t move of course. I was pinned to the ground. Dr O’Dea said that my foot was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I remember it was a hot day and we were saving the hay and having a great time as well as working. Young and old were working side by side, trying to get all the hay saved before the weather broke. Grandma was there but I ignored her as she had once more forgotten her you know whats and I could hear her guffawing at some joke. She had no shame that way
I found out later it was Peader Kearney who did it and he had a few drinks on him that day and what with the unaccustomed hot weather he got a bit befuddled as to where he
was jabbing his fork. I think he is a bit slow at the best of times. I must have fainted as the next thing I remember is my Grandma running down the hill to Dr O’Dea, fast like a young girl not an old woman, with me in her arms, with my blood dripping all over her apron and her tears dripping all over my face.
I still have that scar but when I look at it now it reminds me of the day I started to like the old woman.. It was like I had passed some test or maybe my Grandma had but we struck up an unlikely friendship which got better and better over the years. Maybe it helped that she started putting her teeth in, not every day mind, but on a more regular basis. Who knows. She still had a careless disposition in my opinion and whenever I would bring our conversation round to ’The Day I Nearly Died’ and I did this quite often, she would look at me with those cool eyes and shrug and get up to feed the hens or the calf or something.
When she died, I couldn’t help myself and I asked my Mum if Grandma had put her teeth in that day and she said she had . In the midst of my tears and my great sense of loss, this made me very happy.