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When people ask me about my best story I have to lie because the truth is that my best story is one I never wrote. Nearly ten years later, it is still the one I think about most often and whose lesson I try to follow.
At the time, I was a rookie journalist desperate to show my boss that he hadn’t made a mistake by hiring me straight out of college. It didn’t help that news was slow that summer and the cloying heat had left everyone sweaty and short-tempered. I thought a trip up into the mountains would offer some good photo opportunities, perhaps even the basis for an article about village life or the decline of traditions; if nothing else it would be an excuse to get out of town and breathe some clearer air.
I left the office early, stopping at a petrol station to fill the tank and check the oil in my ageing Fiat; I also bought a bottle of water and a packet of cigarettes.
The main road linking our coastal plain to the heart of the country crosses the mountains at a pass north of the town. I was familiar with this route as it was the one I took to visit my parents, though not as often as they would have liked. In search of a story, I took the smaller road that winds up from the southern end of town; I had seldom used it and was not sure what state it would be in.
The first part of the road headed steeply upwards, twisting back and forth and causing the engine of my small car to roar in protest. Just as the temperature needle hovered towards the red zone, the road levelled out. I pulled the car over onto the grassy verge and got out to take some photographs. Behind me the sea shimmered with life and the town squatted heavy and lifeless beside it; ahead, a wide plateau had opened up framed on each side by rocky peaks.
I took deep breaths and savoured the way the cooler air felt in my nostrils.
Keeping to the side of the plateau, just under the slope, I followed a road whose edges had been frayed by winter frosts through a series of villages. I saw a man tinkering with a tractor, a woman leading a donkey and clusters of children scraping in the dust with sticks, or chasing lanky dogs round. It felt like driving back in time.
At the next fork in the road, I took the left turn which climbed onto the lower slopes of the mountain and quickly became an unpaved track, with corrugations that would have challenged a sturdier car than mine. My mobile phone showed there was no signal and I briefly thought of turning back but once I set my mind to something I rarely give up.
After half an hour of steering a drunken course round ruts and ridges, I saw some buildings on the next crest. As I got closer more appeared but I could see they were in a poor state. I had heard that some of the villages up here had been abandoned and guessed this was one of those.
I stopped the car by the track, hardly bothering to pull over as I hadn’t seen another car since the last turning. As I opened the back door to take out my camera case a dog loped over and sniffed me. I am not frightened of dogs but when this one was joined by two more, assuming they were feral, I kept very still until they had finished their examination. Then I heard a voice calling them.
‘They won’t hurt you; they just like to smell anyone new,’ said the man. So this village, despite its ruination, was not deserted.
‘I’m a photographer. I’d like to take some pictures of the village,’ I said, feeling I ought to explain my presence.
‘It’s not looking its best!’ he said. He had a flat cap pushed high on his wrinkled forehead and his face was burnished nut brown but his eyes were bright and there was a hint of a smile round his mouth.
‘How many people live here?’ I asked.
‘Just me and my wife,’ he said.
He had started to walk towards the nearest houses which I saw now were arranged around a sort of open square. One of them had curtains at the windows and a wooden door that stood half-open. He gestured to it and said, ‘Come and see us when you’ve finished. My wife makes fine coffee.’
I set off along one of the cobbled paths that led out of the square. The village fanned out in all directions and every corner and gaping window gave views over the valley to the bare slopes opposite. The houses had been built of stone and rendered on the inside but much of the render had fallen off and plants were growing between the stones; most were missing roof tiles and some had no roof left at all.
The sun lit the decay and gave it a sort of glamour.
Excited by the pictures I was taking, I explored every corner of the crumbling village. I finished the bottle of water I had bought on the way and as I headed back to the square the sun’s glare was beginning to make me feel woozy.
I found the old man sitting outside his house sharpening an axe. He called to his wife who emerged wiping her hands on her apron. She gave a shy smile, such as a young girl might give, and I thought how strange it looked on the face of a woman her age. She was slightly-stooped, her face was as lined as her husband’s but her white hair was thick and woven into a long plait.
When I suggested I take their picture, they stood side-by-side in that stiff fashion people used to adopt in photographs. I took the picture and a couple more, then the woman went back inside and I put my camera away and sat on an old wooden bench watching the man work.
He kept passing a file over the axe’s blade and then rubbing the blade along a piece of wood to test its sharpness. Eventually, he seemed satisfied as he put the axe down and came to sit with me.
‘The village used to be filled with noise and life.’ I listened; his wife was singing softly in the house but the only other sounds came faint and disembodied from down in the valley.
‘Were you born here?’ I asked.
‘My wife was. I come from a village further down,’ he said. ‘We met at a dance when we were sixteen. She was very beautiful you know.’ The faint smile tugged the corners of his mouth again and he looked tenderly at the woman who had just come out carrying a tray. She put two small cups of coffee on the table and sat on a low wall next to a ginger cat that stretched and rubbed against her.
‘When I finished my national service,’ the man continued, ‘we got married. She was an only child so we set up home here and I took over her father’s fields.’
On the outskirts of the village I had noticed paths leading onto terraced fields. The nearest ones were neatly planted but the others had been invaded by straggling bushes and the mountain had dragged down some of the retaining walls.
‘It must have been difficult, farming here.’ I took a sip of the coffee which was strong and fragrant.
The man gave a snort. ‘Repairing terraces after the winter, clearing stones from the ground, ploughing and planting with horses, cutting and threshing by hand. Yes, it was hard. But at night we all got together. There was a cafe just up there,’ he nodded up one of the narrow tracks. ‘In summer we used to sit outside and play music and dance. In winter we sat round the fire and listened to the old people tell stories.’
‘So what happened?’ I asked.
‘People wanted more.’ He shrugged. ‘The new road was built in the next valley and all the villages up here got left behind. The young people wanted things the village couldn’t offer – telephones, washing machines, good jobs. They moved to town where they could find those things.’
‘When did this happen?’ I asked.
‘It started slowly: young men didn’t come home after their military service, girls looked for husbands down in the town. Then it became a flood: old people moved down to be close to their grandchildren, whole families left. I tried to look after the empty houses at first, to stop up holes in roofs and broken windows, to stop the plants sprouting from every crack and the mice that ate the furniture. The others told me I was wasting my time. They knew the village was doomed.’ He looked at the broken buildings all around us and his eyes were cloudy with memories.
‘How long have you been alone here?’
‘Ten years, maybe eleven. There were a hundred or more villagers when I came here, fifty when Gus closed the cafe and moved down to be with his daughter. Eventually there were only a few of us and I stopped fixing anything we didn’t use.’ He stopped talking to drink his coffee, though I could see he was also struggling with his emotions.
‘There was a bad winter that washed away the fields and everyone except us and old Bernard left. He died the following year, sitting in his field under a tree with his hat tipped over his eyes.’ I tried to imagine what it would be like watching your friends and neighbours leave, living in a place populated by ghosts of the living and the dead.
‘It must be lonely. Why didn’t you leave?’
His mouth set in a line and I thought for a minute he was angry; then I realised there was a tear on his cheek. ‘I might have left,’ he said quietly, ‘but my wife didn’t want to.’ He looked over at the woman who got up and went inside followed by the ginger cat. ‘She said all her memories were here – of her childhood, her parents, our son.’
I was just wondering how a son could leave his elderly parents alone here when the man continued, ‘He died in a flu epidemic when he was nine. We both mourned him but I thought my wife would die of grief. She still visits his grave every day.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said – futile words maybe but filled with feeling; this old man’s story had moved me.
‘So you see there was nothing else to do: she wouldn’t leave the village and my place was with her.’
I asked how they lived and he said he kept chickens and grew vegetables. About once a month, he said, he walked down to one of the villages I had come through to buy their other needs and the cigarettes of which he smoked five a day.
He pulled a crumpled packet out of the top pocket of his shirt and offered me one but I gave him one of mine instead, leaving the packet on the table.
We smoked in silence. The old man was lost in the past and I was struck dumb by his nobility – whatever I had expected to find in the mountains, it was not a love story. I thought of the moving piece I could write but I already knew that I wouldn’t write it; sharing this story with the world would attract attention that would bring about its own end.
So I returned to town and gave my boss nothing more than some pictures of ruined houses. And I took the story and kept it safe inside me: the best story I never wrote.