Friday, 2 February 2007

The house above the cork forest (3)

It should have been so easy. Of course house-buying is more complicated in Italy than elsewhere, by which I suppose I mean northern Europe, as Joost, our Dutch friend, certainly did. But we'd been through it ourselves, twice, friends had bought houses in Fondi and Rome and Milan, it hadn't been that exhaustingly complex, just long-winded. When E. said two or three months at the most, we added one on for luck. Done deal by Christmas, we thought.

The house is flanked on one side by a place for parking cars and on the other three by unfenced land, peppered with olive and fig and pomegranate and vines that produce small strawberry-flavoured grapes with hard skins, and harder rocks heaving up through the rough grey-green grass. There's the well I mentioned earlier, round and hatted, like a relic from a stone age settlement, and a stone-built oven, and the roofless remains of what might have been a stable for a mule, also in stone. Joost and Anna wanted to know what came with the house. The owners smiled and nodded and shook their heads, worryingly not in unison. One of the brothers, the oldest, said the well was his and then said that it wasn't, and then said that it was but that he didn't want to sell it. Each time we went the putative boundaries changed.

This kept us busy for a good six months. Land register maps seemed to offer a solution until we tried to establish how they actually corresponded to the land itself. Goitrous Alessandro, the one who may have owned the well, glanced at our map upside down for a moment then brushed it away with a beatific smile and began to clamber onto the top of a rock, waving his stick towards the road below. Da qua a la, he insisted, while Joost stared hopelessly at the map and Anna gathered figs.

The neighbours, who may be related to the owners, asked us in for their home-made wine and salami, pouring the former into jam jars rinsed in a bucket, slicing the latter against a wool-clad bosom. As we drove past their barn on the way back to the road we saw the head and forelegs of a dead dog sticking out from the straw, like a trophy on a wall. It was still there two weeks later.

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