The sweet smell of spring

WITH THE big Eight-O coming up for a member of the family and the need to celebrate like an itch that must be scratched, it was imperative to give our home a mini spring clean well in advance, something which has me rushing for the sal volatile at the very thought.

What must be, must be and, last week, I was operating an industrial-sized vacuum. Nicknamed The Dalek and with super suction. If the long flexible pipe comes within a foot of anything movable, it will be swallowed whole! Curtains, substrate from plant pots and trousers hung over the backs of chairs have been sucked into its dusty depths. The whole operation is like wrestling a large boa constrictor, but, despite all that power, it cannot detach dog hairs from carpets. Only the legendary machine that ‘beat as it swept as it cleaned’ was able to remove those!

This just leaves the birthday cake… When the Boss bought me a new cooker some months ago, I promised to bake him one and now my chickens are coming home to roost. While not big enough to feed the 5,000, I shall have to use my largest roasting tin and hope for the best.

Cleaning up outside the house must be left until the last minute because a host of resident sparrows rebuild their nests as soon as we pull them from the rafters and shutters. With olive, oak and almond trees close by, perhaps they may get the message and build elsewhere. Daily removal is essential, otherwise the hen bird will have started to lay; leave it too long and hatching will have begun. Fred has developed a taste for the blue speckled eggs and waits underneath hoping that one will drop into his open mouth.

Meanwhile, the creatures of hill and valley are at their most active, especially at dawn and dusk. Traces of wild boar and the rank smell of fox suggest that, despite a time of adversity in the countryside, they are finding food somewhere. Whether there will be enough to sustain their young once born remains to be seen. Nightingales, missing since the fires in 2002, are singing again and partridge are nesting on the slopes.

Fred, being of good hunting stock, disappears from time to time, with his pal from next door, and comes home plastered with soot. So little rain has fallen that, even after three years, the blackened and twisted remains of bush and tree look as if they were cremated only yesterday.

Now there is a hidden danger from pig snares, illegally set by poachers among the foothills. A neighbouring goatherd, who travels many miles each day with his animals, has already freed five dogs that were trapped. One living at the farm next door, another from an isolated house half a kilometre away which lay trapped for four days.

The other morning, I came across a patch of feathers – all that was left of a partridge; perhaps a fox had taken it to feed his cubs. I had heard a vixen calling in the area, a sound that sends shivers down my back as I remember our home on the edge of the Mendip Hills. Pheasants were abundant and foxes a common sight despite the attentions of our local hunt.

Although the land is desperate for rain, it was nicely refreshed last week after a day of heavy drizzle; the sweet smell of orange blossom and mimosa drifting through the windows along with that of farmer Dias’ dung pile.

A less pleasant feature of the district has to be the number of cars that are left to rot by the roadside. One has been there for at least three years; in the beginning, it stuck out like a sore thumb, but is slowly being hidden under the green leaves and golden blossom of a mimosa tree.

This springtime is taking longer than usual to warm up and it is difficult to know what to wear from day to day. But the indigenous tick population has no doubt about the season and is after blood. Goats and cattle graze right up to our boundary and, when these parasites have drunk their fill, they drop to the ground, deposit their eggs and wait for another passing meal. The usual medication from the Farmácia seems ineffective and not only are the dogs becoming infested, there is always the chance that one may jump ship in search of human blood. It is wise to check that none has taken up residence and, like our ancestors among the tree tops long ago, mutual grooming sessions are a wise precaution if one has been walking in the bush.

Even one’s hair needs cutting more often in spring and we thought to try out a new salon in Mexilhoeira da Carregação last week. We were invited to have a preview and trim, but found the builders still hard at work and likely to be there for another month. At least the plumbing worked when tested, but there were no handles on the door and I was shut in; neither were there any windows and, being claustrophobic, I panicked. Then I remembered the old song “Oh dear, what a calamity, two old ladies locked in a lavatory” – singing kept me sane until I was released…