From somewhere in the tree canopy, a nightingale song. The virtuoso trilling and warbling, the underwater bubbling, the teetering on the brink before the tumbling cascade. I’m wearing turquoise Speedo swimming shorts and a panama hat and lying on a terrace lounger. In my hand, a tumbler of the local rosé, one ice cube. The glossy paperback covers of R.W. Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages — now discarded — curl in the heat. Mr Southern says that in the Middle Ages personal freedom was seen as resulting from a constrained will rather than a free one. I’m looking at the view and thinking about that. A fitful wind is churning the trees further down the valley. I adjust my panama to ventilate my bonce and wipe the sweat from my eyebrows with the heel of my hand.
The sun is insanely hot, even for May. I’m too enervated to carry on with Mr Southern’s terrifyingly learned account of the medieval mind. He writes with such absolute certainty that one can’t help wondering if his book wasn’t a cry for help. I’ve read enough of the medieval mind, anyhow, to realise that mine’s rubbish. And now it needs to make a decision. Should I take shelter indoors and make myself a cheese sandwich, or should I stay outside and go a bit redder? I am paralysed with indecision. Erotic thoughts intervene. I pour myself another glass of rosé to assist my postmodern mind in deciding which appetite to satisfy next. Expat entropy, it’s called, I believe.
Not that I’m an expat. Just visiting, thank god. But this five quid-a-gallon local rosé is out of this world. I could drink myself to death on it quite happily. I decide to make a start. The shadow steeple of a cypress tree falls across the terrace like the needle of a gigantic sundial. The leading edge falls exactly along the grouting between two tiles. I decide to stick the heat until the shadow reaches the next tile.
Watching the shadow mark the passing of an afternoon occupies the whole of my mind until an ant climbs on to my toe and trots about on my foot. They’re whoppers, these local ants, and fine, prosperous fellows. On average they are just under the inch from feeler tip to back foot, and the tireless, self-confident fashion in which they go about their business fills me with admiration. If I were giving out prizes, the ant mind would be right up there with the medieval one. Exactly what their business is, however, is difficult to discern. They don’t appear to be foraging for food or slaves. If I had to guess, I would say they are military ants patrolling an outermost territorial border.
I blow smoke from my roll-up over the ant exploring my narrow foot. He returns to the ground and joins two other ants head-to-head in an information exchange. Closer inspection, however, reveals that one ant has the other in a headlock. My ant calmly joins in with a sort of ‘I’ll hold him and you hit him’ approach. The ant under restraint looks no different from the other two. Perhaps it was something he said. Suddenly his head comes off and the victor runs off with it in its mandibles, like a trophy.
Lying on the tiles close to the wall is an owl pellet. It is as well formed as a terrier’s stool, similar in length and girth, black, sticky, and attractively encrusted with the spirals of centipede exoskeletons. (I Googled it later. It had almost certainly come out of a European eagle owl.) The ant takes the trophy head and pauses in the shadow cast by the owl pellet while he makes up his ant mind what to do next. The lady of the house now appears on the terrace. She sees me squatting, glass in hand, and comes near to see what it is I am scrutinising. I pick up the pellet and display it in front of her face in the palm of my hand. She shrieks, does a star jump and runs back into the house.
I resume my position on the lounger, pour more wine, adjust the hat and pick up The Making of the Middle Ages. A low Mirage jet rends the sky. Higher still I can count four passenger jets leading thick vapour trails. Busy, the airspace here. The sun goes in for five seconds then comes out again. Wind churns the trees for a moment, then stills. The nightingale, now moved to a perch a little further away, resumes its passionate song. I roll another fag.
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