Yyou find Ostuni at the ankle of Puglia, the heel of Italy, about five miles inland from the effervescent, sincere sage turquoise of the Adriatic. Perched atop a rocky outcrop that looks down on the flat carpet of olive farms below, Ostuni is one of those places you see splashed across the travel brochures of a weekend newspaper. The sky is bluer than blood in a Bowes-Lyon vein contrasted with elaborate stacks of whitewashed buildings – it’s not called la città bianca for nothing. It is a citadel. Check. An old city. Check. It has dangerous marble cobblestones coming out of its ears.
The surrounding landscape is dotted with masseria, large old farmhouses dating back to the 16th century, many of which have been converted into accommodation for visiting tourists. On the property of one, in a wooden cabin nestled in the shadow of an almost 3,000-year-old olive grove, I fell in love again. With cricket*.
My boyfriend “T” and I had jacked in our jobs at the end of 2018, tired of London and life. We poked Samuel Johnson right in the eye and sublet our apartment and went in search of adventure. End up at the end of the earth. Or close enough. In the first part of 2019 we hiked glaciers in Argentinian Patagonia, ran around Torres del Paines in Chile, saw waterfalls in Iguazu (they filmed Moonraker here? Yep) and was violently ill in Colombia, a chapter filed in the recesses of my mind under the heading The Hostel in Medellín.
After a few months of backpacking, the vast expanses of South America began to take their toll. Tired of 48-hour bus journeys, terrifying internal flights and the discomfort of our peripatetic and, let’s be honest, largely pointless existence, we decided to find a place to live, to find purpose.
T saw an ad on a website called workaway. Of course she did. In truth, she arranged everything for our trip while I dabbled and daydreamed. Without her, “the great adventure of 2019” would have gone no further than me sitting on my couch in South London, hitting “travel” on Google and getting a trick.
The ad was posted by Leonard and Dina, a couple of artists and former lecturers who had set up sticks and swapped an English university to run “art holidays” in Puglia. They needed a couple to work as gardeners, to help prepare their restored masseria for an influx of guests who had splurged for a week of art classes and home-cooked Puglia cuisine. “Italian speakers preferred.” Ahhh.
We fired an honest fake email. I convinced my student summers to trim the grounds of a stately home and made sure to blurt out the Latin names of a couple of plants in a Boris Johnson-like fashion when faced with a difficult question. T downloaded Duolingo. We fell asleep in the departure lounge at Bogotá airport and vaguely dreamed of La Dolce Vita. Or at least a safe flight and the promise of some clean pants.
A few weeks later we got an email back. We had the concert; the lies had paid off. Leonard and Dina invited us to spend the summer living in a cabin on their land. We would have bed and board provided, and would earn our stay by working in the garden and helping with the art holiday. Pruning some agave here, moving an easel there.
We were on a cushy number. Up early to get ahead of the day’s heat, we worked our way through the list of jobs until around 10.00 when Dina, looking like a dignitary on the opening day of a Lord’s trial, rang a big bell. This was to mean that it was time for a coffee and some nourishment. We would go back to work until 13.00, then – KLANG! – the clock would summon us again, this time for a long and decadent lunch. After a few weeks we were firmly Pavlovian, throwing down our tools and running to the main house every time the bell rang.
The afternoons were ours, spent dozing off the party or snuggling into our swimmers and piling into our host’s battered old Nissan Serena van. A stormy bunch, she only worked in fourth gear but was just about able to wheel us up to the beaches of Costa Merlata and Santa Sabina along the coast road to Villanova and a bakery selling focaccia the size of a hubcap.
Nearly 1000 words and no cricket? In truth, over the past decade cricket had taken a back seat in my life. Gone was the childhood obsession, the teenage competitiveness. The players you idolized as a kid retire, and then you’re left with players your own age and then younger. Something changes, you grow up, life intervenes.
I’m not sure I even wondered it was a World Cup until the day of the first game. I remember firing up the 4G in the cabin and watching Jonny Bairstow bowl the first ball, while Imran Tahir rolled off in celebration. A wry “here we go again”, there was no real investment from me in Eoin Morgan’s team. Still, T was heavily invested in another audiobook, so there was no harm in tuning in from the beach, waves lapping and TMS roaring away.
A few hours later and I remember bumping the bolt upright on my beach towel as the commentators lost their minds over a Ben Stokes catch. England won the match and I suddenly felt an urge to get back to the cabin and watch it Stokes captures. It did not disappoint.
The next day, one of the jobs was picking peaches from the small orchard. Our “method” – inspired by Stokes and resembles a cross between Call me by your name and ITVs The cube – was for T to use a broom handle to knock the fruit from the branches high enough for me to jump backwards, and use the wrong hand to pluck the peaches from the air. It took most of the day.
Leonard was a many-faceted man: part no-nonsense Yorkshireman (he grew his azaleas in red and white stripes to bring a touch of Bramall Lane to Brindisi), part thoughtful sculptor. What he was thinking when he looked out to see his two hired hands messing around with his fruit is anyone’s guess.
As time went on we became a small unit and like a well-oiled bowling quartet we settled into a groove. T and I listened to Dina slurping on Negroamaro as she talked about snogging Ted Hughes when she was in art school. Now in her early eighties, she was intense and unspeakably cool. The days had a rhythm and sense of achievement. When they look back, they feel almost heavenly.
BAt home, England’s men strolled through the World Cup campaign. As the weeks passed, I found myself more interested in their fortunes. Sneak peeks at the Guardian’s over-by-over text commentary between palm tree trimmings. Signing up for wicket alerts on the BBC and wondering about the ominous/hopeful sound of a whoosh.
During England’s tense must-win game against India, I cut the grass and sat aboard Leonard’s vintage Italian sit-on mower. When Rohit Sharma, the key player, was turned, I celebrated by putting the creaky machine through its paces, a series of celebratory donuts and arm-wrenching swings, only to remove my headphones and find Leonard standing still, staring at me. He said nothing. After a while he turned on his heel and moved on to the next task. I swear I saw a smile tug at the corner of his mustache.
Our time in Puglia with Leonard and Dina came to an end, the art holiday was over. We were booked on a train down to Sicily for a couple of weeks before heading home, back to real life. Since she was T, she had a teaching job lined up at a new school. I hadn’t sorted anything and set out to think about it. I had found peace, happiness and a certain sense of purpose in Italy, so going home felt like a leap back into the unknown. Strangely, the vessel for my hopes, fears and countless pent-up emotions became England’s World Cup campaign.
Sitting in a steamy Palermo watching Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett dismantle Australia in the semi-final, now T was also invested (humoring me, or maybe just concerned at how much I seemed to care?)
At the time of the final we were in the Aeolian Islands. You will struggle to find a more picturesque location. We spent our entire first day there indoors while the whole bonkers game played out. By the time of the Super Over I was losing it, running around in my trousers, using a curtain rod as a bat, shadows playing every delivery from Boult. T sat on the same pillow, as long as she kept in contact with that cushion, England was still in it. When Jimmy Neesham launched Archer into the Mound Stand, it was a gut punch akin to heartbreak. T looked at me, concerned. “What does that mean?” I couldn’t answer. Could not speak. And so.
Archer. Guptill. Roy, Butler, Bails! Relief. Happiness. Tears.
When the celebration played at Herren’s, T and I went down to the lake. Drained. Happy. In the distance, the sun was setting behind Stromboli, one of three active volcanoes in Italy. It belched a few clouds of ash into the sky on cue, as if for us and us. Maybe one of the clouds swooped in in the shape of a cricket bat and ball, maybe it didn’t. But when my mind returned home, I had an idea of what to do next.
* Oh go on then – and deeper in love with T, Tori, Victoria. Sharing a composting toilet and a single bed in 40 degree heat will tend to have that effect. Reader, we got married this weekend.
This is an extract from Golden Summers, where 50 writers, poets, musicians, comedians and ex-players use cricket as a backdrop to tell their own stories. Order the book for just £15 + p&p when you use the coupon code GOLDGSN at thenightwatchman.