YYou will find Ostuni at the end of Puglia’s ankle, the heel of Italy, about five miles inland from the Adriatic sea, whose horror is frankly exhibited. Perched atop a rocky outcrop that peers down onto the flat carpet of olive farms below, Ostuni is one of those places you see splashed across weekend newspaper travel supplements. Skies paler than blood in the Bowes-Lyon vein contrast with the artistic stacks of white-washed buildings – it’s not called la citta bianca free. There is a citadel. Check out. Old town. Check out. There are dangerous marble cobbles coming out of his ears.
The surrounding countryside is dotted with insult, large old farmhouses dating back to the 16th century, many of which have been converted into accommodation for visiting tourists. In the grounds of one, in a wooden hut nestled in the shade of an almost 3,000-year-old olive grove, I fell back in love. With cricket*.
My girlfriend “T” and I had quit our jobs at the end of 2018, tired of life and London. With a head straight into Samuel Johnson’s eyes, we set our apartment afloat and set off in search of adventure. Ending up at the end of the world. Or close enough. In the first part of 2019, we hiked a glacier in Patagonia, Argentina, hiked the Torres del Paines in Chile, viewed waterfalls in Iguazu (Did they film Moonraker here? Yep) while violently ill in Colombia, a chapter buried in the back of my mind under the heading The Hostel in Medellín.
After a few months of backpacking, the vast expanse of South America began to take its toll. After 48 hour bus journeys, scary domestic flights and the malaise of our departure and, let’s be honest, mostly unimportant, we decided to find a place to live.
T saw an ad on a website called Workaway. Of course she did. In fact, she arranged everything for our trip while I was crying and dreaming. Without her the “great adventure of 2019” would have gone no further than me sitting on the couch in South London, typing on Google and going into a tizz.
The ad was posted by Leonard and Dina, a couple of artists and former lecturers who upped sticks and changed an English university to run an “art holiday” in Puglia. They needed a few to work as gardeners, to help prepare their renovations insult for the influx of guests who were forked out for a week of art lessons and home cooking Puglianese cuisine. “Italian speakers are preferred.” Ahh.
We forwarded a fraudulent email. I looked over the summer of my students to hit the grounds of a stately home and I made sure that I was crowbaring in the Latin names of a few plants in a Boris Johnson-like way when I had a complex question. Download Duolingo. We fell asleep in the departure lounge of Bogotá airport, dreaming of La Dolce Vita. Or at least a safe flight and the promise of some clean pants.
A few weeks later and we got an email back. We got the gig; the lies paid off. Leonard and Dina invited us to spend the summer living in a hut on their land. We would be provided with bed and board, and we would earn our keep by working in the gardens and helping on the art holidays. Pruning some agave here, moving an easel there.
We were on a cushy number. Up early to get ahead of the heat of the day, we would work through our job list until about 10am when Dina, like a celebrity on the opening day of the Lord’s Test, would ring a big bell. This was an indication that it was time for some coffee and nourishment. We want to return to work until 1pm, when – CLANG! – the bell would call us again, this time for a long, uninterrupted lunch. After a few weeks we were firmly Pavlovian, putting down our tools and running to the main house whenever the bell rang.
The evenings were ours, spent napping from the festival or squeezing into our swimmers and piling into our host’s battered old Nissan Serena van. A terrible pile, she only worked in fourth gear but she couldn’t get us up to the beaches of Costa Merlata and Santa Sabina along the coast road to Villanova and a bakery that sold focaccia the size of a hubcap.
N1,000 words early and no cricket? In fact, for the past ten years cricket had taken a back seat in my life. Gone was the childhood obsession, the teenage competitiveness. The players you idolized as a child retire and then you are left with players your own age and then younger. Something changes, you grow up, life intervenes.
I’m not sure I even saw that the World Cup was on until the day of the first game. I remember shooting the 4G in the hut and watching Jonny Bairstow bowl the first ball, Imran Tahir walking out in celebration. A “here we go again” comic, I wasn’t really invested in the Eoin Morgan team. Still, T was heavily invested in another audiobook so there was no harm in tuning in from the beach, waves running and TMS pouring out.
A few hours later and I remember bolting upright on my beach towel as the commentators lost their collective minds over Ben Stokes’ catch. England won the match and I suddenly felt like going back to the hut and watching that Stokes catch. He was not disappointed.
The next day one of the jobs was picking the peaches from the small orchard. Our “method” – inspired by Stokes and like a cross between Call Me By Your Name and ITVs The Cube – T hanla had to use a broom to hit the fruit on the branches high enough for me to jump back, and use my wrong hand to pluck the peaches from mid air. It took most of the day.
Leonard was a multi-faceted man: part no-nonsense Yorkshireman (he grew his azaleas in red and white stripes to line the Bramall Lane to Brindisi), part contemplative sculptor. What he thought as he looked out to see his two employed hands fooling around with his fruit pull, is anyone’s guess.
As time passed, we became a small unit and, like a well-oiled bowling quartet, we settled into a groove. Ted and I would listen to Dina, sneaking in on Negroamaro as she talked about hooking Ted Hughes when she was at art school. Now in her early eighties she was tough and unspeakably cool. The days had a rhythm and a sense of achievement. Looking back they feel almost heaven sent.
bat home, England’s men were spluttering through their World Cup campaign. As the weeks went by I got more interested in his success. A glance at the Guardian’s textual commentary between palm tree trimmings. Signing up for wicket alerts on the BBC and lurching at the ominous/hopeful sound of a wedge.
During a tight, high profile England v India match I was mowing the grass on board a vintage Italian Leonard lawnmower. When Rohit Sharma, the main wicket, sped, I celebrated putting the creaky machine through its paces, a series of celebratory donuts and arm twists, only to remove my headphones and see Leonard still standing there staring at me. He said nothing. After a while he turned on his heel and went into the next task. I swear I saw a smile turning the corner of his walrus mustache.
Our time in Puglia with Leonard and Dina came to an end, the artistic holidays ended. We were booked on a train down to Sicily for a few weeks before the journey home, back to the real world. T á T, she had a teaching job in a new school. I hadn’t edited anything and stopped thinking about it. I found peace, happiness and some sense of purpose in Italy, so going home felt like jumping back into the unknown. Strangely enough, England’s World Cup campaign became a vessel for my hopes, fears and myriad emotions.
Sitting in gallant Palermo watching Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett tear Australia apart in the semi-final, by this time T was also invested (joking me, or maybe I was worried about how as big as I was?)
By the time of the final, we were on the Aeolian Islands. You would be hard pressed to find a more picturesque place. We spent our entire first day in there and the game was all bonkers outside. By the time the Super Thar was getting lost I was getting lost, spinning around in my pants, using a curtain pole as a bat, shadow playing every delivery from Boult. T sat on the same cushion, while she stayed in touch with him to relief, England was still there. When Jimmy Neesham sent Archer into the Mood Stand it was as gut wrenching as it was heartbreaking. He looked at me, worried. “What does that mean?” I could not answer. Could not speak. And now.
archer Guptill. Roy, Butler, Bonds! Relief. Joy Tears.
As the celebrations played out in Tiarna, T and I walked down to the sea. drained. Happy. In the distance, the sun was setting behind Stromboli, one of three active volcanoes in Italy. It somehow sent a few clouds of ash into the sky, as if for us and us alone. Maybe one of the clouds went into the shape of a bat and a cricket ball, maybe it didn’t. But as my thoughts went home, I had an idea of what to do next.
*Oh so on – and deeper in love with T, Tori, Victoria. Composting interest and sharing a single bed in 40 degree heat will usually have that effect. Dear reader, we got married this weekend.
This is an extract from Golden Summers, in which 50 writers, poets, musicians, comedians and former players use the game of cricket as a backdrop to tell their own stories. Order the book for £15 + p&p when you use the coupon code GOLDGSN at nightwatchman.