THERE IS A ring of truth in the unhappy catch phrase, “troubles never come singly”, and so it has been for a near neighbour of ours.
As I started out on an early walk last week, with frost still lying among the hollows, I heard the distant wail of sirens coming at speed in our direction. Concluding that there had been another accident on the Via do Infante motorway, I thought no more about it.
In fact, an old cottage on the hill above the village had caught fire for some unknown reason. The prompt arrival of Lagos Bombeiros failed to save it – part of the roof fell in and it was gutted. An elderly Portuguese couple had lived there most of their lives until moving into a newer place alongside. They were country folk who ‘kept themselves to themselves’, although the husband could be seen hard at work on his smallholding, walking behind a large well-kept mule as he cultivated his crops.
A few years ago, he was knocked off his motorcycle by a young man driving a four-wheel drive too fast and on the wrong side of the road. The farmer suffered a fractured leg and other injuries and was, therefore, unable to do much work, so the land gradually returned to its natural state. Recently, he fell sick and died. His widow, who is terminally ill, was staying with her daughter at the time of the fire. A dog and some chickens remained at the old home and may have perished before help arrived.
A while ago, when we still owned the farm, a mule broke its tether one hot summer’s day and, despite being hobbled, leapt four feet down a terrace wall into the paddock where we kept our horses. They were fast asleep when it landed in front of them and there was immediate panic. The bucking mule plunged up and down in the middle of the field, with its front legs joined together, and the horses galloped round in a cloud of red dust. After a few tricky moments, we caught and stabled the intruder, which backed into a dark corner, displaying two rows of long yellow teeth and the whites of its eyes. Locating the owner took most of the morning, by which time the mule had drunk a bucket of water and was tucking in to some hay. It was clear, as soon as the farmer approached his animal, that they shared a mutual trust. After a grunted “obrigado”, they left by the drive with the man striding out and the mule walking uncomfortably beside him, impeded by its tightly hobbled front legs.
When we first came to live in Portugal, donkeys, mules, oxen and noisy, low-powered “motorizadas”, with their silencers removed, were the prime sources of motivation for smallholders. Today, these are few and far between, tractors and more sophisticated types of transport having taken their place.
Nowadays, one rarely meets a mule cart going to the monthly market; locals prefer to travel in the latest Aixam or Bellair minicar sheltered from the elements – no crash helmet required, yet licensed as a motorcycle. For some, the changeover has been seamless, while a few of the older generation are taking longer to get the hang of things. Last week, as I was going to Odiáxere, I saw one coming toward me on the wrong side of the road, the driver not having spotted my car. Oblivious to horn and flashing headlights, he motored on until we were almost bonnet to bonnet, by which time I had stopped. He swerved into his own lane and chugged serenely past, before disappearing from sight straddled across the solid white line. On second thoughts, perhaps he had enjoyed one “medronho” too many with his morning coffee, which had caused a lapse of concentration.
It is a sobering thought that this delectable hooch is likely to be in very short supply. The knock on effect of forest fires two years running, combined with the present drought, has severely cut back on the hybrid arbutus, or strawberry tree, from which the liquor is made. A secret recipe passed down the years is used and the finest quality brandy comes from illegal stills tucked away among scattered farms in the hill country of Monchique. The brew bears no resemblance to that found on supermarket shelves, one slug of the genuine article is guaranteed to warm the coldest heart and a second tot to reach all parts south within a few seconds. Stay there or get a taxi home!
However, an elderly man we found on hands and knees, in the middle of the same road, was painfully sober. Having fallen from his ancient bicycle, while tackling a slight incline, he was unable to stand up. Leaving our car on the road with hazard lights flashing, we helped him to the side, along with his heavy iron-framed machine. A passing motorist might well think we had caused the accident, but, fortunately, a kind Portuguese man stopped, read the situation as it was and took over. He offered to put man and bike in his van and drive both to their destination, but the shaky old victim insisted he was quite capable of managing on his own. Leaning heavily on the saddle, he wobbled up the lane and out of sight.