A mystery of olive groves and aloof neighbours

A mystery of olive groves and aloof neighboursSometimes one of the many mysteries that thread through the puzzling fabric of existence comes right up under your nose and can no longer be consigned to a comfortable distance...

When, some years ago, my wife and I first arrived in these rural parts, knowing almost nobody, we decided one Sunday morning to call on our only neighbour. From our place, the one structure visible is a galvanised iron shed among the vines on a distant slope. However, when you walk down to the front gate, a substantial house looms above a vast, spreading plantation of olives across the road and down the hill a bit. That’s where we went on that Sunday morning years ago, intent on friendly gestures and amicable chat.

I don’t think we’re the kind of people who are terribly good at this sort of meeting, as a matter of fact: too diffident on the male side, too forthright on the female. But anyway we did it, and in response to our knock on the door a tall, rugged looking bloke in shorts and singlet appeared to greet us. He was neither welcoming nor rejecting. We introduced ourselves. We’d just moved in "across the road" we said. He said he’d noticed someone had arrived "over there" and then, with a non sequitur that might have betrayed an awkwardness equal to our own, revealed that his wife was "in the shower". He probably meant that she would have handled this impossible encounter much better than he could.

We chatted a bit and admired the olive trees surrounding his house, stretching away rank after neat rank across the property like battalions on parade, and he said with disconcerting seriousness that our views would change if we had to strip the crop. After that, as Bertie Wooster might have said, "the long day wore on" and eventually we wandered vaguely off. He didn’t proffer his name or, for that matter, the name of his showering wife. The family’s pair of Alsatians — to whom we were happy to remain strangers — escorted us up the long drive growling and muttering and giving every indication that only recent bitter experiences of painful retribution were preventing them from reverting to their deeply ingrained, long buried vulpine rituals and having their toothy way with our calves and ankles.

Back out on the road we agreed the visit had been a failure, and we walked up our own long and safely Alsatian-less drive, pensive and somehow deflated. We mused that the encounter had gone against the rural or bush stereotype: our experience as newcomers had been that people in the township and the district were extraordinarily friendly. They would smile at you, however vaguely, passing in the street, and shopkeepers and tradespeople, with only the very odd exception, were invariably polite and helpful.

A mystery of olive groves and aloof neighboursWe didn’t see our neighbours again except occasionally in the distance from the road. The wife remained forever shower-curtained from us, and the bloke might have been a dim presence behind the wheel of a ute now and then, though there were many utes and they all looked much the same. On frosty mornings the smoke from our chimney, flattening out in the freezing air, would mingle eventually with the smoke from theirs above the vines and olives creaking with cold. And in the summer their plantation shimmered in that strange luminescence with which olive leaves absorb and resist searing heat.

And then a month or so ago, something changed. At first, glancing across to their house as I always did while taking the first reluctant paces of a morning run, everything seemed in order. But a second look showed something odd about the olive trees. The ranks were ragged, straggly. I stopped, stared — and saw that every tree near and far had been ripped from the ground and was actually lying on its side. All the way down to the house, around it and back up the slopes stretching beyond it, trees lay alongside the gaping earth from which they had been torn, with their tangled and knotty roots exposed. Looking to the house as if somehow it would offer an explanation, I saw that there was no smoke from any chimney. The windows were blank, like closed eyes; the verandahs and sheds had that indefinable but irresistible air of abandonment.

No doubt the story will unfold — from Gavan, who will soon be along to do some ploughing, or Paul, who is spraying our weeds, or Pete, on whose laconic instructions we rely to complete our paving. One of them will know or swear he knows. But I don’t expect hearsay will get to the essential mystery of it — lives suddenly and brutally uprooted; a family knocked down and on the move like a defeated army.

 

 

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