That time of year again…

We had been um-ing and ah-ing about when to start for some time, keeping an eye on what our neighbours were doing as a signal for when would be the right time. Over the preceding week or so one of us would come in and report that “Maurizio and Flavia have started.” Or “There were stacks of crates outside the place with the goats.” Or “They’ve got nets out next door to the bakery on the way into the village.” With each new sighting, Mr Blue-Shirt went and dusted down another piece of our harvesting equipment. First the bright green nylon floor nets to catch the falling fruit, then the orange plastic rakes about the size of a child’s toy that can be fitted onto poles of varying lengths and with which the fruit is simply combed from the trees, and finally the russet-coloured storage crates (ingeniously designed so that they can either stack on top of, or, if turned round the other way, slot inside each other) in which to take the gathered fruit to the oleificio, the oil press.

Our olive crop had been steadily ripening beneath the mellow sun of our prolonged Indian summer. The plump bright green fruit had gradually faded to a murky mauve, then darkened to purple, and now to glossy black: thousands of little black beads shining in the sun like fairy lights made of jet. The trees on the northern side that Mr Blue-Shirt had given a good pruning back in spring hadn’t fruited this year, of course, but there was so much fruit on the trees along the eastern side we could see it twinkling among the branches from our bedroom window. And a quick inspection of those along the southern boundary confirmed that they too carried a promising amount of fruit. But as ever it was a matter of judgement as to when was the best time to harvest these little black jewels, and as ever, we had decided to take our lead from what people locally were doing – hence the daily reports on what our neighbours we up to. Annoyingly, however, just when the harvest really seemed to be gearing up and we had decided we would spread our nets out beneath our own trees and get raking the coming weekend, the weather broke. After weeks of uninterrupted sunshine and temperatures consistently in the low twenties, thick grimy cloud suddenly bowled in from every direction, the temperature halved overnight, and rain fell in torrents from slate skies. Days of the stuff, heavy and relentless: harvesting in this was out of the question. Not only would it make a normally enjoyable task extremely unpleasant and mucky, but fruit harvested in the wet would quickly start to rot. And this would mean reduced yield or, if any rotting fruit was not extracted, tainted oil. So Mr Blue-Shirt returned the nets and rakes and crates to the shed and waited for the rain to stop and for the trees to dry out.

It was a good week later that the nets, rakes and crates finally reappeared from the shed, and Mr Blue-Shirt being Mr Blue-Shirt, this time accompanied by both chainsaws, the leaf-blower, the long-reach secateurs, the bolt-croppers, and the decorator’s ladder. Along with the harvest, he wanted to give the badly over-grown, unkempt trees along the eastern border a long overdue pruning and start the process of coaxing them back into their optimum fruit-bearing (and fruit-harvesting) shape. This means keeping them quite short, maintaining a good distance between the branches of one tree and its neighbours (to restrict the spread of pests and disease), removing any dead wood to avoid rot, and taking out most of the growth in the centre of the tree. This helps direct growth to the principal fruit bearing limbs, allows them to get more sun, and provides easier access when it comes to harvesting. The ideal shape to aim for, apparently, is that of a wine glass: a rounded, hollowed-out crown on a short, broad-based stem.

With his supporting cast of tools neatly laid out on the grass, Mr Blue-Shirt strode off to the boiler room for the star of the show, his beloved abbacchiatoro elettrico. This car-battery-powered device consists of a telescopic pole on the end of which is a pair of lightly interlocking rakes that jiggle back and forth like a pair of rapidly clapping hands and tease the olives from the tree as you pass them along the branches. The plastic rakes are all well and good for the lower branches and if the fruit is quite dense as just a vigorous tug will bring the black beads raining down. And there is something almost romantic about the simplicity of using a technology that has hardly changed for centuries. But to get right to the top of the trees, even the shorter ones, and comb through every branch to make sure you’ve got all the fruit, then one of these gadgets makes all the difference. And it’s not just the reach, it’s the speed as well: whatever quantity can be gathered using rakes and ladders will take a fraction of the time with the clappy hands – and with no need for ladders either.

Fortunately, however, we didn’t feel the same need this year to try and locate every last olive. The year before, waves of storms accompanied by raging gales in the weeks running up to the harvest had yanked most of our crop from the trees and hurled it onto the sodden grass below in a rotting carpet of slippery black. In the end, even with the assistance of the clappy hands, we had only managed to fill four-and-a-bit crates: little over a hundred kilos, whereas the year before that we’d got almost the same amount from just five or six of our thirty-eight trees using just our trusty orange plastic rakes.  This year, though, we were confident of achieving a much more substantial crop.

Our confidence had been justified: at the end of several days’ non-stop raking, combing, jiggling, snipping, sawing, sorting and gathering, nine crates brimming with shiny black fruit stood in neat rows on the floor of the van. Mr Blue-Shirt wiped his purple-stained hands on his muddy trousers and picked a few stray twigs from his fleece.

“Job’s a good-un,” he declared and stretched contentedly, rolling his work-stiffened neck and shoulders back and forth.
“Wow! I hadn’t realised you’d got that many! How many kilos do you reckon?”
“Well, we’ll soon find out. I’ll just these tools put away and then I’ll get straight down to the oleificio. I don’t want this fruit to sit around for any longer than necessary.”
And with the tools safely stowed for another year, he slammed the van doors shut, clambered into the cab and trundled off through the gathering dusk, down the hill to Rodolfo’s.

“196 kilos?!” I yelped when Mr Blue-Shirt got home and showed me the receipt Rodolfo have given him.
“Yes, I know! Incredible, eh?”
“But that’s almost double what we got last year! What on earth will we do with that much oil? We’re still getting through last year’s batch.” I gestured to the bottle of green-gold oil standing on the work-surface where I was preparing dinner.
“We don’t know what the yield will be like, though,” cautioned Mr Blue-Shirt. “At the end of the day, it’s how much oil we get from each kilo that counts. And we won’t know that until they’ve been pressed.”
“When’s he doing that, then? I thought you wanted to get them done today.”
“I was too late. He’s going to do it first thing tomorrow. And he’s asked if I’d like to go and watch, so time will tell…”

Perspective

“Let’s take a trip up into the mountains,” I said. “It’s a beautiful day, we’ve got nothing else planned, and we could probably do with getting our heads above the parapet.” For several days following Mr Blue-Shirt’s mum’s funeral we had been hunkered down in the house, sleeping lots and not sleeping lots, talking lots and not talking lots, and generally not feeling up to doing very much at all. I had taken leave of absence from work and all jobs on the house and garden were on hold; we just pottered about, slowly adjusting to this new kind of normal. But I had begun to sense that all this introspection and insularity was at risk of pulling us further down into the darkness, and that we need to start heading towards the light and to breathe the oxygen of purpose and people once more.

“What do you reckon?” I persisted. Mr Blue-Shirt had continued sipping his coffee while scrolling aimlessly on his phone. After a long pause, he looked up at the clock, took a final swig of coffee and nodded firmly. “Good idea,” he said. “Where were you thinking of?”
“I hadn’t got that far. Where do you fancy?”
“I don’t know. I thought you had somewhere specific in mind.”
“Not really.”…
This was typical of many exchanges lately when fatigue and mental fog conspired to make even the simplest of decisions just too much effort. I was determined not to let this one spark of enthusiasm fizzle out in another puddle of listlessness, though. The soft honey-gold sun was tracking across a sky of solid blue, beckoning us out into its mellow warmth.
“How about we just follow our noses and see where we end up? I’ll get the map.”
Mr Blue-Shirt squinted up at the sun through the kitchen window and nodded.
“OK. I’ll clear the breakfast things away and we’ll get on the road,” he said, easing himself from his stool at the breakfast bar.

We headed west and slightly south, directly towards the proud peaks of the grey-green Sibillini Mountains that looked magnificent against the perfect sky, and we could soon feel our mood begin to brighten. The main east-west dual carriageway guided us inland along the flat floor of the busy Chienti valley. But lost in thought once more, we missed our usual turn-off that skirts the eastern edge of the mountains and snakes along to Amandola and Sarnano, from where we normally begin our upward climb. By the time we were able to turn off, though, we were already well into the mountains and immediately found ourselves surrounded by steep wooded hills clad in shades of bronze and copper and gold as we zig-zagged up towards the craggy limestone peaks that jutted into the brilliant blue.

Without realising it, we had also ended up in an area that had been badly affected by the two violent earthquakes that had had struck central Le Marche exactly three years earlier. It was a sobering sight: village after village where dozens of houses, shops and churches still stood shored up by steel girders, or even still in ruins. Indeed, once debris clearance and stabilisation measures had been completed, most places seemed to have changed little since the quakes had occurred apart from the tight clusters of small, wooden chalets that had been rapidly erected on any piece of spare flat land. This was the emergency accommodation that had been provided by the state and whose residents had tried to make them as homely and attractive as they could, with white plastic table and chairs arranged on the narrow verandas and scarlet geraniums tumbling from modest window boxes. There are several thousand people across dozens of communities still living in these simple structures, and a similar number in rented accommodation or staying with relatives (although fewer now living in their campers), all still unable to return to their homes – if, indeed, they ever will be. In larger settlements, shops and businesses, even post offices, schools and police stations continue to operate from Portakabin-type structures in a humbling display of stoicism and determination to get back to normal and to get on with life. And while we both felt distinctly uncomfortable, as if we were indulging in some kind of voyeuristic ‘earthquake porn’, it was clear that these communities were desperate for people to come spend money and help them get back on their feet – and for people to know of their ongoing hardship.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Norcia, a small, picturesque town that lies on the western slopes of the Sibillini just over the border into Umbria. It had been close to the epicentre of the 5.9 magnitude quake that struck the area at the end of October 2016, bringing down many of the buildings in its historic centre that had already been damaged in the series of quakes and aftershocks that had rocked the same communities in late August. A foodie-heaven, it is famous for its sheep’s cheese and black truffles, and so great is the range and quality of its salamis and cured meats that the collective name for such products is ‘norcineria’. Its historic centre used to be packed with enticing delis and teeming restaurants, and a few are still battling on amid the ruins and abandoned buildings with their broken windows and flapping tarpaulins. Most, however, have long since de-camped to the temporary high street of cabins along one side of the town’s sports field where they are trying to eke out a living. But here in Norcia the stoicism and determination were accompanied by an all-too-evident anger at the lack of assistance from the government. From crumbling balconies and gaping doorways throughout the town hung homemade banners that complained of abandonment and indifference, of being betrayed and being forgotten. And we could see why, for as with other places we had passed through, we were taken aback by the almost total absence of any re-construction work in progress. Indeed, although the whole town bristled with buttresses and braces and scaffolding, the only place in Norcia where work actually seemed to be going on was the 14th century Basilica of St Benedict in the main square.

So apart from feeling the soft sun on our faces and enjoying the spectacular autumn colours, which had undoubtedly done us good, it was not quite the kind of spirit-lifting day out we had anticipated. It had nonetheless done us good in other ways, though, I’m sure. It had made us feel less ‘singled out’ by misfortune, it had turned our inward focus outwards, and it had given us some very valuable perspective. And, I think, might just have enabled us to turn a corner.

More importantly still, it had enabled us to make people beyond Le Marche aware of the wretched conditions in which so many people in the forgotten communities of this beautiful region are still struggling to live and work.

Photo of the Basilica of St Benedict, Norcia: http://www.nytimes.com

Taking stock

So  in normal circumstances I’d be sharing experiences from our life in Italy, or telling you about some little-known aspect of Italian culture. But circumstances remain far from normal, for it is still barely three weeks since Tim’s beloved mum died unexpectedly. And losing a parent remains surely one of life’s most challenging rites of passage; I know from my own experience that no matter how grown-up the child or how elderly or poorly the parent, the shock is immense and the loss immeasurable. So, with minds numbed by shock and spirits dulled by pain, it was a time for reflection and remembering and not for anecdotes or trivia.

A week later and there was still just a tangled mess of words and thoughts and feelings that refused to coalesce into orderly sentences and paragraphs, and that still lay trapped beneath the crushing blanket of sadness that continued to envelope us. Weighed down by sorrow, it felt as if our veins had been filled with lead. Every movement was an effort, every thought a struggle and performing even the simplest tasks became a challenge. The fatigue was overwhelming, but while brief interludes of dreamless, motionless sleep did provide some relief, all too often pain and loss prodded us into prolonged periods of restless wakefulness.

Another week on, and with the rituals and formalities of death now behind us, the long search for a new normality has begun. Sleep remains elusive, so fatigue and mental fog persist. But there is at least some sense that little by little we are starting to find our way out from beneath that dark blanket of sadness and to edge towards the light…

Tilly

And then it struck me: what about Tilly? We had just finished burying her brother Stanley, whose small, stiff body Mr Blue-Shirt had found on the road earlier that morning, his skull crushed by a passing car. By that time, Tilly had already disappeared through the cat flap for another day’s butterfly chasing, lizard hunting and tree climbing, presumably unaware of what had befallen her constant companion and partner in crime. While we were still kneeling in the car port stroking Stanley’s inert form, his thick brindled fur with its ginger-tinged highlights now strangely cold, I thought I glimpsed her dark tabby form among the olive trees a couple of times and I did fleetingly wonder whether she had somehow sensed that something terrible had happened. Poor Stanley and where to bury him had dominated our thoughts, though. Now, as we stood at the spot beneath a small pear tree in the far corner of the garden where Stanley now lay at rest within the crumbly dun-coloured soil, my own sadness at his loss shifted to concern for Tilly and the life-changing effect it would have on her.

I reckoned that they couldn’t have spent any more than three or four hours apart since they had been born barely a year earlier. As tiny kittens they had suckled together from their mother and developed their cat-craft together as part of an extended family of siblings and cousins. When they first came to us as four- or five-month-old juveniles, they comforted their own and each other’s fears and anxieties at all the unfamiliarity by cuddling up side by side like a pair of tabby slippers in a succession of refuges, peering out at us from two pairs of golden, suspicion-filled eyes. First it was the dining chair in the far corner of the dining room where we spent long spells kneeling under the dining table trying to coax them out. When they had gained a little more confidence, they graduated to one of the armchairs in the snug or the leather-covered stool on the landing, although they mostly still shrank from our touch. As their confidence grew, they started to join us in the sitting room, Mr Blue-Shirt and I on one sofa and the two of them on the other to start with, and gradually allowed us to stroke and scritch them – although not yet to hold or cuddle them. And so it progressed over the tail-end of winter, testing boundaries, testing themselves and testing us – but always as a pair; each always the other’s wingman, back-up, watch-out and fall guy.

It was the same once they were settled in the house and confident in our company and we finally allowed them outside to discover a whole new world of adventure. Straight after breakfast, we would hear the distinctive double ‘ba-dap, ba-dap’ of the cat-flap, and that was them gone for the morning. From time to time we’d catch sight of them galloping across the grass, rolling around on the drive or chasing each other up olive trees. Wherever one was, the other was seldom further than a few metres away, and invariably in hot pursuit. Then once they’d lunched side by side, both munching contentedly from their respective bowls, they’d hop up onto the sofa, give each other a thorough wash, and then cuddle up together for an afternoon nap in an eight-pawed, two-tailed tangle of tabby fur. Having re-charged their batteries, they’d be off again as dusk settled. But by the time spring was turning to summer, they had become sociable, entertaining and affectionate house-mates who sought out our company, often coming to join us as we dined in the garden. While we ate, they would alternate between chasing moths or stalking various tiny rodents and lolling about at our feet, wanting to have their stripey (Stanley) and spotty (Tilly) tummies tickled. Then, as we headed in for the night, the two of them would head off to who knows where for a night’s important cat-business, only returning at dawn when we’d be woken by them calling for breakfast in a duet of urgent miaowing, and the daily cycle would begin all over again.

But now Tilly was on her own. She spent much of that first day without her brother outside, surely searching for him in all their usual haunts, and we were worried sick. But as night closed in, she finally re-appeared looking stricken and confused and utterly lost. Our hearts nearly broke for the poor wee creature and we smothered her in cuddles and comfort and did our human best to soothe her all-too-obvious pain. She wouldn’t rest, though. Once in, she roamed the house, systematically checking every room, every nook and every cranny. Into the small hours we could still hear her soft paws padding back and forth across the wooden floors, her mournful calls amplified by the stillness of the night. We lay there, racked with doubt: should we have shown Tilly her dead brother’s body? Should we have allowed her time with him to work out what had happened? But if we had, would she have thought we had taken him from her? By now we were undoubtedly both over-thinking everything and projecting our own sorrow onto her. But one look at her sweet little face with its long white whiskers and distinctive black ‘M’ between her huge golden eyes and her distress was plain to see.

And so it has gone on, night after night. We’ve been terrified that she might disappear altogether; just head off into the fields in a never-ending search for her brother and soul mate. To our huge relief, though, she has continued to come home and seems to find some comfort from all the extra attention we are giving her, inadequate though it seems.  She still patrols the house, however, and still calls for Stanley. And when she receives no answer, she once more seeks refuge on that dining chair in the far corner of the dining room, the same armchair in the snug or the leather-covered stool on the landing. She sniffs the last traces of Stanley’s scent, curls up, and continues the endless wait…

Stanley

“He’ll come bowling in any minute now,” said Mr-Blue-Shirt and bit into his toast. “… nearly bringing the cat flap off its hinges as usual”.
“Yes, with that wide-eyed look that shouts ‘have I missed breakfast?’” I said.
The cats nearly always eat together, Stanley on the left, Tilly on the right, one bowl each. Before they arrived with us, they were effectively semi-feral and had always had to compete with a dozen or more siblings and cousins for every scrap of food and meal times were initially a total feeding frenzy. After a few weeks, though, we managed to convince them that this was their food, no one was going to steal it from them and so they didn’t need to fight over it or eat it all at once. Mealtimes gradually became a lot less frantic and a lot less messy with each of them crunching contentedly at his and her own bowl of biscuits.
“Tilly will have told him she’s had hers so he needs to get a move on if he’s not going to be too late for his,” continued Mr Blue-Shirt, sipping his coffee. Anthropomorphise? Us?

It was Saturday morning so we were lingering over our own late breakfast before getting on with the weekend errands and chores. As usual Tilly had been at the bedroom door calling for breakfast as soon as she heard us stir. And as usual, Mr Blue-Shirt had fed her while making our morning tea. Then, still licking her lips, she had disappeared through the cat flap for another day’s butterfly chasing, lizard hunting and tree climbing. He hadn’t bothered to open the back door and call Stanley or rattle the biscuit jar as over summer he had taken to staying out longer than his sister. So we knew that before long we’d hear the distinctive ba-dap of the cat flap opening and closing and Stanley would appear, squawking loudly and looking slightly panic-stricken, for all the world like a hotel guest who thought he’d overslept and had come dashing down to breakfast before the restaurant closed.

We cleared away the coffee pot and jam jars, put some food down for Stanley and headed off in different directions to start on our respective job lists. Mr Blue-Shirt strode out to the shed that, with the pigsty gone,  now serves as a makeshift workshop, ready for a morning’s woodwork (the first section of the pergola for the southern section of terrace) while I trotted up to my study to catch up on some paperwork and prepare my lessons for the first part of the following week. With Radio 4 burbling gently in the background, a light breeze carrying the distant clatter of a tractor in through the open window and my desk covered in papers, I was soon absorbed in the daily task of completing my online class registers. So it was with a slight start that I became aware of Mr Blue-Shirt coming up stairs. Something was wrong, though. His tread was slow and heavy, as if he was carrying a great burden, and when he appeared on the landing outside my study, his face was grey and drawn.
“What’s up?” I asked. “Have you had an accident?”
He shook his head, swallowed hard and took a deep breath.
“Stanley’s dead.”

“What??” I’d heard what Mr Blue-Shirt clearly enough; I just couldn’t take it in. “Where? How?”
“A car got him. He was out on the road.”
It had been our abiding fear. Although the road is quiet, what little traffic there is is fast-moving and with their tabby stripes, both Tilly and Stanley are – were – is – extremely well-camouflaged.
“What? Just now? I didn’t hear anything.”
“No, it must have been during the night. He is quite cold.”
“I thought you were in the shed.”
“I was opening the gate. I need to go down to Civi to get some bits from OBI. I saw him straight away lying on the road.”
I winced. “Is he badly damaged?” My voice caught in my throat.
“No, thank goodness. It must have been a glancing blow. It will have been quick.”
“Where is he now? Another car might hit him.”
“It’s OK”. Mr Blue-Shirt had caught the anxious note in my voice. “I’ve brought him in and laid him in the shade in the car port. He’s quite safe. Do you want to come and see him?”
“I don’t know. I…” the words wouldn’t come. My throat tightened and tears sprang in my eyes. I stood up from my desk and wrapped my arms round Mr Blue-Shirt.
Another loss. Yet more taken from us. When will it stop?”
My tears flowing freely now, I sobbed into his saw-dust sprinkled chest while he stroked my back with one hand and wiped the tears from his own eyes with the other.
“I know, I know. It’s so bloody unfair. Poor little chap.”
After a few moments we released one another.
“What do you want to do, then? We can’t leave him in the car port.”
“No. But I do want to see him and say goodbye.”

Mr Blue-Shirt was right. There were no gaping wounds, no oddly-angled limbs. He was lying on his side, legs outstretched, mouth slightly open. From a distance you might think he was just snoozing in the shade. But close up, you could see that his head was slightly flattened and that he had already begun to stiffen. I knelt down beside him and stroked his thick brindled fur with its ginger-tinged highlights. It was strangely cold, and his small body was so utterly lifeless. No deep throaty purr, no languid yawn, no slow wriggle over onto his back to have his honey-coloured tummy tickled. Our dear, gentle, playful, loyal and oh-so-lovable Stanley had well and truly departed.

“Have we got an old pillow case I can put him in?” asked Mr Blue-Shirt, trying to be business-like. “I’ll get going on a grave. Where do you think we should put him?”
He sniffed and thrust his red spotty handkerchief back into his pocket.
“I thought maybe somewhere in the olive grove. He loved to play there and climb the trees.”
“With Mimi,” I said. “He loved to play everywhere out here. We can’t keep making little cairns all over the place either.”
My throat constricted once more. “And I know it’s silly, but I don’t want him to be alone.” Fresh tears spilled onto his tawny coat.
“No, it’s not silly. That makes perfect sense. With Mimi it is. I’ll get a spade.”
And with that, he was off to the far corner of the garden that catches the early morning sun and the spot where Mimi lies beneath the small pear tree that looks across to village and down to the sea.

We must have made a strange sight: Mr Blue-Shirt and I, together solemnly bearing a small, pale blue bundle across the drive and down past the legnaia to the freshly dug hole. We gently laid him on top of Mimi, still in her own pillowcase shroud, and neatly tucked him in – daft, I know, but… Then we bade him one last farewell and carefully re-filled the grave and rolled back into place the large stones that mark the spot and keep it safe from foxes and porcupines.

And then it struck me. “What about poor Tilly?”

And there it was gone…

Although Mr Blue-Shirt had sent me twice-daily photo updates on his progress while I was in the UK and given me and blow by blow accounts over the phone, they still hadn’t truly prepared me for the reality that greeted me when I returned home. I stood at the back door, my suitcase still in the middle of the kitchen floor and the cats weaving about my legs, and looked out towards where the decrepit and toxic pigsty had once stood on the slight rise to the rear of the house. When I left, all the makeshift cladding had long since been ripped off, Mr Blue-Shirt had carefully taken down one and a half outside walls and all the internal dividing walls brick by brick, salvaging all the materials for use elsewhere. He had removed the large curved coppi roof tiles from half the roof and stacked them on a pallet, and many of the timber uprights and beams had been removed and then stowed in the legnaia (woodstore) for chopping into firewood. It was still recognisably the loathsome pigsty, however, albeit a mortally wounded version of its former self. But now – at last – it had gone. Completely gone. Disappeared. Not a single brick or beam or roof tile remained. Nothing. Just a bare patch of roughly levelled soil in front of the previously almost invisible pair of tall olive trees up by the front fence, and beyond it a newly revealed view of the uphill section of the field that surrounds the house. I could now see on to the trees that line the lane running down the valley, then over the road that runs up into the village to the tops of our neighbours’ olive trees and finally round to the western sky from where the late afternoon sun cast its slanting rays through the line of olive trees along our northern border that I had never seen from this angle.

I really don’t know how Mr Blue-Shirt had managed it. I’m lost in admiration for his unswerving determination in razing this blight on our lives to the ground in a matter of days. And in mid-August at the absolute height of this hotter than usual summer. Doing an early and a late shift certainly helped. After a quick coffee just after 5am, he’d start work in the cool, milky dawn, the throaty splutter of the ageing digger he had hired for this part of the job breaking the stillness of the morning air. He’d stop for breakfast at about 9am, then get straight back to the slow, repetitive, strength-sapping cycle of labour that made up his days. After some minutes of pushing and heaving with the digger would come the dull crash and cloud of thick buff-coloured dust as the section he’d been wrestling with gave up the unequal struggle. Mr Blue-Shirt would then jump down from the cab to retrieve any re-usable bricks from the latest pile of debris and stack them on the pallets behind the well. After a brief pause to drink the first of many pints of water with which he held dehydration at bay, he would then climb back into the cab to scoop the remaining rubble up into the steel-fanged digger bucket, hopping out again to top it up by hand (and gulp down more water), and finally trundle round the eastern end of the house to tip the contents into the back of the fifteen-tonne truck parked on the drive. Then it was an about turn (or a ‘neutral turn’, as it is known in the track vehicle trade: when one track rotates forward and the other rotates backwards causing the vehicle to rotate on the spot) to return to the pigsty for the next round of push, heave, retrieve, (gulp,) stack, fill, (gulp,) carry, tip. And the next, and the next. He’d keep at it until about midday by which time the temperature was well into the thirties and any last patch of shade had long since vanished. And then: stop.

Boots and socks abandoned at the back door, increasingly disreputable straw hat tossed on the work surface and the dust and grime shaken from his sweat-drenched T-shirt, Mr Blue-Shirt would down yet more water before padding across the cool kitchen tiles and into the inviting gloom of the tightly shuttered sitting room. Siesta time. He’d flop onto the sofa, not caring that he was sprawled across the cats’ throw, and within seconds fall into the deep sleep that comes with hard physical labour. A sleep so deep, in fact, that on a couple of occasions he was completely oblivious to the arrival of Alessandro the building contractor. Every other day or so, Alessandro would rumble through the gate in an empty fifteen-tonne truck to swap with the full one crouched low on the drive that he would then drive down to the quarry for its load to be crushed into building-grade hardcore.

After a couple of hours’ sleep Mr Blue-Shirt would pull on a fresh T-shirt, rustle up a hearty, labourer’s lunch for himself and potter around doing gentle indoor jobs while he waited for the sun to move round from south to west. Then late in the afternoon when the shade had begun to creep across the ruins of the pigsty and the temperature had eased back a couple of degrees, Mr Blue-Shirt would venture back out for the late shift and several more rounds of push, heave, retrieve, (gulp,) stack, fill, (gulp,) carry, tip. On and on, back and forth until the golden light turned to bronze, to purple, then back to milky grey.  With dusk gathering, the digger would finally fall silent, giving way to the song of the crickets, and Mr Blue-Shirt would clamber down from the cab, his work done for another day.

And so it went on, day after day until not a trace of the pigsty remained and the by now exhausted Mr Blue-Shirt could bid farewell to his steel-fanged friend. Between them they had made some 210 trips from pigsty to truck and back, and shifted 105 tonnes of rubble. Mr Blue-Shirt had also salvaged and stacked some 1200 roof tiles and 1800 bricks. Job done. Pigsty gone. The healing continues.

Number 65, your time is up

It lasted fourteen months in the end. Which is probably longer than anyone expected Italy’s most recent government – its 65th – to last.  This coalition between the anti-establishment, populist Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle) and the far-right, populist La Lega (aka the secessionist Northern League) was at best no more than a marriage of convenience right from the start, and in August, following weeks of bickering and in-fighting, Matteo Salvini, the leader of La Lega and hard-line Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior filed for divorce. Suddenly it was not just the UK that was in the midst of a political crisis.

The coalition formed in June 2018 was the result of eighty-eight days of horse-trading and arm-twisting following the inconclusive general election in March – the longest ever period the country has had to wait for a government to be formed. The Five Star Movement (aka M5S) won the largest number of seats both in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, and nearly twice as many as La Lega, who came second and who also led the largest parliamentary coalition. However, in Italy’s strictly proportional system that is deliberately designed to prevent any one party or individual party to hold too much power, this was not sufficient for either party to govern on its own. And while both predictably ruled out an alliance with any of the traditional, mainstream parties, there was little common ground in terms of policy between them. Indeed, all they agreed on, it seemed, was their opposition to The Establishment and their rejection of the old Left/Right politics. Nonetheless, M5S’s manifesto, with its emphasis on inter alia the environment, a citizen’s income and direct democracy was seen as broadly left-leaning, while La Lega, with its nationalistic, anti-immigration and low tax stance was distinctly right-wing in flavour. Hence the three months of paralysis while a mutually agreeable policy programme and distribution of roles was slowly and painfully thrashed out and the two parties eventually got themselves balanced on a tiny island of common ground that consisted largely of tax and pension reform, stricter controls on illegal immigration and resistance to the EU in respect of border and budgetary controls.

Although M5S was technically the senior partner in the coalition with M5S nominee Giuseppe Conte as Prime Minister, it was quickly undermined by its own its lack of practical political experience: in line with M5S’s anti-establishment credentials, most of its ministers came into parliament – and now into government – from outside politics. Conte himself, for instance, was (and apparently still is) a professor of private law at the University of Florence. The politically astute and media savvy firebrand Matteo Salvini quickly exploited this inexperience and soon muscled in to become the de facto leader of the government, prioritising La Lega’s hard-line agenda at the expense of M5S’s more liberal policy ambitions. A raft of draconian anti-foreigner ‘security’ laws was quickly passed, resulting in a rapid and highly visible clamp down on asylum-seekers, an increase in repatriation centres, and, most controversially, the closure of Italian ports to NGO boats carrying refugees rescued from the Mediterranean. As a personal aside, we consequently find it rather ironic that it is Salvini’s signature on the official documents that grant us residency here.

But I digress. While these policies caused much acrimony and argument within the coalition, they have actually been well received within the country, especially in the south, where nearly all migrants arrive, but which, with its already high unemployment rates and more limited infrastructure, is ill-equipped to deal with all the new arrivals. And, significantly, where La Lega had historically enjoyed little support thanks to its traditionally northern focus. This no doubt helped La Lega’s relentless rise in the polls: by summer its popularity had doubled since the 2018 election, while M5S’s popularity had practically halved – hence Salvini’s increasing dominance of the fractious and faltering alliance, and M5S’s increasing resistance to it. So he finally walked away from the coalition in the hope if not the expectation that this would force the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, to call for new elections that would allow Salvini to capitalise on his popularity and go on to form a government, either on his own or in coalition with other parties of the right including Fratelli d’Italia, and even Berlusconi’s (yes, he’s still around) centre-right Forza Italia.

Salvini ended up shooting himself in the foot, though, for rather than acceding to his ever more strident demands for an election, the cautious and pragmatic Mattarella preferred to give party leaders the opportunity to see if a new coalition could be formed first – as in fact required by the constitution. Salvini was banking on M5S refusing to enter into coalition with the next largest party in parliament, the centre-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico – PD) because this was the very party resistance to which had provided M5S with its raison d’être. But he massively under-estimated M5S’s determination to avoid an election at practically any cost given their miserable position in the polls, as well as their resulting willingness to form a coalition with their hitherto bitterest foes, who were naturally also keen to grasp the opportunity both to enter government and simultaneously neutralise La Lega. ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’, as they say.

Indeed, neutralising La Lega could well have provided the foundation for the M5S-PD alliance that was formed in little more than a fortnight after several rounds of ‘swapsies’ along the lines of ‘We’ll only give you Finance if you give us Agriculture and Transport’ as ministerial positions were handed out. A few days later, M5S’s members gave the deal their overwhelming support, Conte was re-appointed Prime Minister, and Salvini was banished to the opposition benches. He had been completely outflanked: in addition to under-estimating the strength of M5S’s desire to hold on to power he had also badly under-estimated just how quickly these political ingénues had grasped the dark arts of politics – ironically, as a direct result of having to try and work with Salvini, it seems to me.

But. And it is a big ‘but’. In light of their previous enmity, coupled with the numerous challenges the country faces, many commentators doubt government number 66 will last long. And, of course, Salvini is not going to go quietly. Indeed, he is already whipping up fierce opposition to the fledgling coalition among his supporters, and although his ratings have been dented over summer, La Lega still tops every opinion poll: “It won’t last long,” he tweeted recently. “Opposition in parliament, in town halls and in the squares, then finally we will vote and win.” So while some feel that the prospect of elections against the backdrop of La Lega’s continued popularity in the polls will be sufficient to keep the coalition together, many others are merely waiting for Act II of this latest political drama to play out. And some can already spy the fat lady warming up in the wings…

 

The headline in the photograph roughly translates as “Faith in the government? For now, just about”.