Postcard from Provence

Carol Drinkwater on life in the sunny south

I love the early summer mornings when guests are still sleeping and only the dogs and birds are awake. I walk the land at this hour, communing with nature, making decisions about the garden, collecting crisp salads for lunch. I sing to the spray of hosepiped water as it slips to earth, drenching the vegetation, the squeaky closing of the rusty tap protruding from the dry-stone wall. I climb the tranquil hillside, dogs panting at my heels, to admire the sunlight on the sea from this altitude. Sometimes, I hear small creatures scurrying for cover, fearing the discovery of their lairs and I wonder who else shares these grounds, but I know every inch of this terrain, don’t I?

Upon my return, our guests are up, seeking coffee, sleepy-headed, riveted by our ravishing displays of flowers in tall terracotta pots, procrastinating about whether or not to swim in the pool. And while they breakfast late in the shade, gorging on home-made confitures, I settle in my den. Concentration broken by a wasp pushing itself back and forth against the glass, I rise to open the French doors, offering the frantic creature freedom.

Our leisurely lunches consist of variations on salad, cheese, fresh baguettes and chilled rosé. These are precious gatherings, catching up on news from the old country, the northern lands I left behind. Afterwards, while friends sleep on loungers in the shade of fruiting almond and olive trees dreaming of their next meal, I return to solitude, words and books, wrapping up a day’s work in preparation for my swim.

From dawn to dusk these have been the constants of my summer, until a few days ago when a mysterious discovery jolted my routine. Acres of overgrown land adjoining ours have been cleared for the first time in two decades. Owner deceased, a heritage for sale. I climbed to our boundary and squeezed through the fence on to sloping earth cluttered with felled trunks and a network of slashed briars and shrubs. The machines have been merciless, slicing everything in their wake. I was saddened. Three ragged, strangled olive trees that have stood sentry here for more than 100 years have fallen victim to the cutters. I clambered on, slipping and sliding on spiky, expiring grasses, turning towards the hill’s rear.

Suddenly, I was aware that a motionless community of eyes was watching me. I couldn’t believe the vision I beheld, so far from everywhere and everyone. Hidden from sight, until now, was an electrified paddock. Within were three goats, one long-tailed pony, a grey donkey with black pools for eyes and a magnificent copper-red horse that stood many hands high.

To whom did these animals belong? I looked about for a pathway, an indication of a presence, but found none. Were these beasts kept here illegally? Eventually, I uncovered a slippery, winding track and descended the northern side of the hill to a tiny stone property, shuttered and concealed behind wild shrubbery. Abandoned, I’d have said, had it not been for the livestock. I called, but there was no response.

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I heard a motor and moved out of sight. A lorry of hay bales was arriving; dinner for the animals. A swarthy man got out; I stepped forward and called. He caught sight of me, jumped into the lorry, reversed at breakneck speed and disappeared. I know no more. My hillside, where I have resided for 25 years, has become the source of a mysterious tale.