From the ruby-red sofa on which I am curled I peer through the rain-streaked windows of the garden doors, up towards where Montelupone stands wrapped in a grimy shawl of thick cloud. One of the September storms that mark the start of the shift from summer to autumn is raging outside, angry gusts of wind rattling the shutters and curtains of rain billowing across the terrace. It is almost the first time since May that we have really used the sitting room, which over summer became little more than a corridor between the kitchen and the terrace where we have spent most of the last five months.
In late April we pressure-washed, sanded and oiled all our outdoor furniture, and since it can accommodate around a dozen people, perhaps this was an early manifestation of the growing optimism we felt as we emerged from our third period of lockdown and the vaccination programme started to gain traction. Then once we had re-positioned the dining table and chairs and the L-shaped sofa to their respective positions on each side of the main terrace and re-erected the parasol over the former and the sail shade over the latter, we effectively moved outside for the summer. When we haven’t been busy at home or out and about, we have been outside on one part of the terrace or another: cooking and eating, writing and reading, Zooming and snoozing, making conversation, or just drinking in the picture-postcard view up the hill to the village and down to the tantalising triangle of turquoise sea at the bottom, and in the scented warmth of the evening, simply watching the lights twinkling across the valley and listening to the chirruping of the crickets.
The only thing is, Mr Blue-Shirt built this fantastically sociable space over the course of the first lockdown. So even though it had always been conceived as a place to while away lazy summer days with friends and family, for over a year while further lockdowns came and went and rules on visitors and travel restrictions persisted, it had to remain just the two of us on our own on the terrace. But a couple of weeks ago, and almost two years – two years! – since we had had people to stay, we were finally able to welcome friends here once more and to share our space at last.
It was quite ridiculous really, as before the pandemic we’d been used to having people to stay every six or eight weeks, but we found ourselves feeling almost nervous before Bill and Melanie arrived. All the things that had previously come so naturally now felt unfamiliar and out-of-practice: had I remembered to put fresh towels in the bathroom? had I checked that the hairdryer was still in the drawer in the guest room? did we have enough milk – and wine! – in the fridge? could we still remember how to cook for four rather than just two? But the instant they pulled onto the drive, the nerves dissolved beneath the huge wave of joy that washed over us. This. This was what we had been missing. This was how it was supposed to be. And it really was the simple fact of Bill and Melanie being here, with us, in our space that caused us such delight. For we had already done the whole outpouring of emotion thing when we met up again for the first time in over two years at the international blacksmithing event in Tuscany from where we had just returned. The tangle of hugs as they climbed out of the car, the babble of chat about routes and traffic, the unloading of suitcases, the ‘make yourselves at home’ and ‘what can I get you to drink?’This was what was normal and real and as it should be; not the separation, solitude and relentless monochrome of the last eighteen months. This was us. We were back – because people were back. Full colour had been restored.
Being able to hear other people’s laughter from upstairs, to catch the hum of conversation in another room, or even see two different pairs of legs walking down the stairs as I prepared breakfast in the kitchen were all somehow both alien yet ordinary, surprising yet comforting. The sound drifting in through the garden doors of chairs shifting and plates and glasses clinking, the sight about the place of books and tablets, bags and shoes that were not our own all came as such a delicious familiarity-tinged novelty.
I snuggle deeper into the sofa’s cosy embrace, recalling the late lunches and long suppers the four of us enjoyed together around the table on which the rain now beats down and gurgles in the gutters like an echo of our laughter. I watch the lavender and plumbago that edge the terrace trembling in the strengthening wind that tugs insistently at the sail shade beneath whose shelter we had lounged on the sofa, spinning yarns, sharing jokes and swapping tales, and I am cheered by the renewed sense of connection that this simple togetherness has given me.
Another flash of lightning briefly splits the grey and I reluctantly conclude that it is probably time to pack up the barbecue, take the parasol and sail shade down and put the covers on the furniture for winter. But even though it may be time to close the doors on summer and return to life indoors, my sadness at the fading of the season is tempered by the knowledge that the doors on normal life, on our life, have at last re-opened. And with our next set of visitors due within the month and still more already in the diary, the prospect of more, long-awaited reunions, togetherness and reconnection fill me with more warmth and delight than even the most perfect summer’s day spent out on the terrace.