From a Window
The bedroom — my office — window is open, despite the downpour. At this side of the building it mostly flies beyond the eaves, lashing into the orange grove and obscuring all but the nearest hill.
Such is the threat of nest theft, a single stork stands guard, head down into the wind and rain, sodden and bedraggled and clearly remembering a time when its ancestors all left for Africa every winter, before the lure of landfill scavenging and warming European winters meant some chose to stay year-long.
When there is a break in the rain its partner arrives and, after a brief clatter of beaks, display and reaffirmation of their bond, they switch places. In my mind’s eye I suddenly suspect whichever partner is no longer on the nest is under a bridge somewhere, standing around with his or her friends, chatting idly, complaining about the rain, talk of tasty insects, and whispering of Africa, as they all wait to switch positions. Maybe they loiter together in bus shelters, or beneath the same ancient, spreading cork oak.
Today, the wind and the rain are back, piling in from the Atlantic to crash into these hills. It is hard to remember how dusty and dry it can be in summer, or how last year there were months and months with no rain at all, and barely a cloud to be seen. This direction may bring water — lots of much needed water — but thankfully it doesn’t bring the cold of January. The days are warming, the nights too.
A few days ago, the sun appeared: sun and showers, rainbows and warmth. The clouds were majestic galleons, sailing across the blue, the rain sporadic, excitingly fleeting, pouring fast and true, before retreating in a gentle, misty steam. I stood in the kitchen, making a cup of tea, when a movement caught my eye. When you have watched birds and animals (and, indeed, trees and flowers and butterflies and…) for as long as I have, you sometimes only need a glimpse, especially when there is movement involved. Something ancient in my head, something instinctive kicks in, linking the pattern with memory, with knowledge.
I turned to check and, sure enough, my instinctive, sideways snatched glance was right. The first swallow of the year, on February the 7th. The following day, another snatched glimpse, another check, two house martins, chasing insects. Summer is whispering to the birds too.
Now, as I redraft this piece, it is again raining, hard, harder than before, and has been for many hours. This morning, I heard a huge crash from outside, and the sound of falling rocks. I looked out and it didn’t take long to realise that part of an old wall of a nearby roofless ruin had collapsed. I watched as another huge chunk of stone, mortar and earth crashed to the ground, went to fetch Aurélie, and together we watched another portion crumble. The scent drifted up on a minor rippling shockwave, a scent of ancient places, freshly disturbed, earth long hidden, secrets whispered and trapped, left by masons centuries dead. The oldest part of this village is the church area, and this building backs on to the square surrounding it. Old, and very wet.
It makes me think, about our own walls, how the damp and mould outline the courses and individual blocks. How long before this building goes the same way? How long before the damp in my own bones makes me crumble? Oddly, perhaps, I never find these thoughts too morbid or disturbing. After all, each atom of our beings has travelled for longer than we can envisage, has passed through many stages: there a great mountain, now long worn away, then a huge sauropod, a dragonfly, a tiny mouse-like creature, back to dust and earth once more, before being sucked in and absorbed by plant and animal, a recycling which never ends, a story incomprehensibly vast. How is that not incredible? How can that be morbid?
No wall lasts forever, nothing does. And this is to be celebrated.
Our year-long tenancy here in Portugal is nearly at an end. By the time the newsletter after this one arrives in your inbox, we will be back in France, in Isère, isolating and exchanging spring for winter once more.
Technically, the decision to move to France happened last year, despite having months left on the tenancy. We love Portugal, it has so much to recommend — from the friendly, kind people, to the freshest of food, to the nature and the sun and the skies. We feel slightly cheated too, as all our plans to explore, to eat all the seafood, to find our people, did not come to fruition as they would have, had there been no pandemic.
As far as things go, however, we are well aware we have been both lucky and had it far easier than many people. After all, despite having no vehicle, we can still get almost everything we need in the village, all within easy walking distance. There are butchers, bakers, fishmongers, greengrocers, clothes shops, electrical* goods store, an ‘everything’ store, supermarkets, corner shops, ironmongers/hardware stores, and several other places we haven’t even begun to explore. It is like I remember from my childhood, before out-of-town malls and shopping centres ripped the hearts out of villages. (*typo turned this to eclectical, which also almost works, especially for the everything store, known in Portugal as a Chinese store, as they are run by families of Chinese ancestry and simply full of almost anything you need, even if you did not know it before entering.)
And there is something to be said for pausing in one place for a time, even if it was not planned and, especially, if the place is unknown to you. Exploring under a lockdown is different, feels like something else, something older and stranger.
We have been fortunate, in that our views are wonderful, one of the main reasons we fell for this apartment, despite it not having an outdoors area, beyond a small balcony. In our next place, a garden will be essential. I work with my back to the window, as I am sure I have mentioned before, or I would get nothing done. This movement, that movement, all would need checking. Is it a sparrow or a black redstart? A warbler or a stonechat? That, up there, is it a snake eagle, or a buzzard? We are visited and graced by so many species it is humbling.
Yet our stay has been bittersweet. We chose Portugal as it was a relatively cheap place to live, but closer to relatives and friends, as well as more central, as far as flights and voyages went. Our plans, to host guests, to go visit, and to travel, never happened. Not really a problem, exactly, but it leaves us with unfinished business here. I suspect we’ll be back one day, potentially to find somewhere in need of love, with oranges and lemons, persimmon and olive, fig and clementine, shaded by cork oaks and holm. There are bargains to be had here, if you don’t want somewhere modern, but the world is changing — The Alentejo is one of the places already threatened by climate change, the vineyards at risk and the summer heat crippling, the dry months parching.
I think back to the places I know, the places I have lived. Orkney, where the cliffs I grew up climbing and, occasionally, falling from, which once rang with the calls of kittiwakes, thronged with seabirds, are now quieter. They still have birds, but not at the levels I remember. Yorkshire, where the snowdrops which once arrived in late January or February now push through in December, the frogs laying their spawn earlier and earlier. Caithness, where the bogs are drying, the peat eroding, burning. Chiang Mai, with its own burning season, pollution trapped in the valley, turning the air itself poisonous, every breath a struggle in my lungs. The French Alps, where the mountain flowers are being forced higher and higher to survive, each gain in elevation pushing them to barer and barer rock, until there will be nowhere left to go. And here, in The Alentejo, the summers are longer and hotter and drier than they were just a couple of handfuls of years ago, reservoirs running empty.
Everywhere is changing, but there is always hope.
For February, if you want to snag some free books, take a look at this Epic and Dark Fantasy Giveaway on StoryOrigin. My novella, Only One Death, is a part of this, along with over thirty other books. Although judging books by their covers is a big no-no, I do like many of these, rather enticing indeed.
Have a look, grab something for free, all with the consent and cooperation of the authors involved.
The third book in the Tales of The Lesser Evil, now relatively firmly entitled Death in Harmony, is oh-so-nearly at the ‘PANIC: Being sent to others!’ stage. I am redrafting the final scene, with three scenes to edit, before a final read through and gentle word massage. These stages shouldn’t take that much longer, and my publishing deadline of April is looking frighteningly realistic.
Unlike Only One Death, and Death & Taxes, this book is firmly in novel wordcount territory. This was an accident in some ways — I had always intended to weave two stories together, each following the same character several years apart, but I had thought it would be perhaps 20-25% shorter. As it happened, the beats and rhythms of the tale would not have worked, had there been fewer words.
This book is breathless, deliberately paced so the reader wants to keep going, find out what happens next, with little time to rest. Throughout the whole, the main themes echo and reverberate, repeating and building — fear and terror, and the relationship between a mother and her baby.
The free, additional bonus story is set between these two interwoven tales, featuring the same character and some others mentioned, but hitherto unseen. Together, they introduce new locations and ideas which will be crucial in the longer novels of The Lesser Evil. By the time the fourth and final story and, especially, its bonus, comes out, probably in June, the pieces will all be set on the board, ready for the game to commence in the first ‘proper’ novel.
Each of these Tales has been crafted with backward-compatibility in mind. This is a long game, one which will see readers approaching these works in an order other than that of publication. Each Tale introduces people, places, ideas, and themes, all of which play crucial roles in the longer work. I like this idea — I suspect the extra work will pay off, but probably not for a time yet. Let’s see, shall we?
(And if you haven’t read them, or you know someone who enjoys darker fantasy fiction, do please share this newsletter, download my story and, if you like it, leave a review. Don’t forget either, you can still download Death & Taxes and several other works, for free, in exchange for reviews, here.)
I should leave this here, it is already long, but I have so much left I want to say and share. This is an increasing problem, and one which I am giving much thought to. This piece on newsletters tallies neatly with Things in my own head and, indeed, this newsletter — the work I put into these notes, the tens of thousands of words shared, for free is, at present, tough to justify. Robin Rendle does a wonderful job of sharing ideas here, in a beautiful way too. Worth a look.
I suspect, in coming months, you will hear more about these Things. Already, I have been experimenting with the Brave browser, remember? (And that €11.25 worth of BAT I changed into Bitcoin around a month ago? It’s now worth nearly €15. [The €0.63 worth of BAT I traded two days ago for BAL, is now at €0.91.] Of course, what goes up, also goes down, but an interesting and, essentially, free experiment, nevertheless.)
For now, I shall wish you a Merry mid-February, and a Happy Lunar New Year’s Eve. See you in March, and the Year of the Ox.
P.S. The photos here are all of Portugal, every alternate image on of the view from my window, which seemed fitting, I thought. Today, the eleventh of February, marks exactly a year to the day since we crossed a rugged, mountainous border in the north of the country, and wound our way down through valley after narrow valley, heading deeper into Portugal towards the sea, searching for a home.