I was enjoying the thought of wine in a proper glass, not a Duralex tumbler or mustard glass, the feel and sight of the chipped olive-painted plates, the knowledge of the cleanliness or otherwise of my own floor ( my own dirt) cool under my bare feet. I'd made a phone call, checked the mail, set the washing machine going. I went upstairs with the suitcase to empty the rest of it. A fly phuttered at the Velux, so I opened it, and heard the sound of a whetstone on a scythe. It is a sound so familiar I almost let it pass me by, almost forgot to notice how the very familiarity of it breathes peace into my soul. Sounds corny, trite, the pastoral idyll, the antique charm, the towny foreigner lapping up the bucolic banality. But it's real, and it's the last chance to know it.
Victor is scything, what? Clover, perhaps, or lucerne, probably for the rabbits. The scythe is larger in length and breadth than he is. The whetstone is held in an old hollow cow's horn filled with sour cider, hooked, probably by an old slate hook, to the hip pocket of his overalls. Every dozen or so strokes he sharpens the scythe on the stone. He has done this since he was a small boy, cutting hay or oats or buckwheat, sometimes wheat, for fodder, or bracken for bedding. His vegetable plot, framed by the chestnuts he won't cut down, under a nimbus of russet maize heads, looks good: leeks, carrots, cabbages the tomatoes are picked, some chard or leaf beet, better than it was in the year or two before his wife died.
His Light Sussex hen and noisy big red cockerel watch and chunter at him, he speaks a word to them. When he, and perhaps old Marcel, both in their mid-eighties, are gone, I doubt we'll hear the sound of whetstone on scythe again. We inherited one indirectly from the old man who lived here previously; another neighbour gave us the whetstone and an old cow horn for the vinegar, and for a while we used it, but the blade was as thin as a new moon with working and whetting, the handle worm-eaten; the blade went first. We bought a new scythe, but we can't get it to that fine, balanced, slicing fineness, and we've little call for it, and anyway, we feel like frauds.
I watch, fold my legs under me on the wide window sill. When he looks up and across, I'll speak to him, but he doesn't, people seldom look at an upstairs window. Should I just observe, like this, or should I involve myself? Which is truer? (the photos were taken afterwards). I take in the sounds, the scything, the chickens, the clockwork churring of starlings, the woodpigeons' monotone, a bark of a dog, a sparrow scritches and peers at me along th gutter.
Down the road a way, Marie is saying goodbye to her daughter and son-in-law, suddenly blossomed into aging hippies in their retirement. There is a tug of pathos, of guilt and sadness in the situation which distracts me, adds a complex other note to the scene. They drive away, Marie's big old dog follows her companionably back up the garden path, settles outside the porch door.
Another sound, Josette and Claude start calling cats. Claude looks anything but elegant in long black shorts, ankle socks and mules, a purple cardigan that might well have belonged to his wife. He mooches down the road, directly under my eyes, rattling a tin of cat biscuits. He is so close, I can see the design of a neo-classical temple on a red background on the biscuit tin. He must see me, but he doesn't. At the corner he turns, Marie sees him, calls after him 'Is it the black one you're looking for?'. Which else, I think, probably murdering wildlife and terrorising gentler cats in our back garden. In the maize, they conclude, not far off, but not inclined to come, embêtant. As he passes underneath, I can remain invisible no longer. 'He's not hungry enough, Claude.' I call. He starts, then laughs. 'Good holiday?' he asks.
Good indeed, but good to be home.