Scott grew up in Manchester. Or at least he says that. He is actually from a suburb of Salford, but to anyone outside his area, or in our travels, he is from Manchester, land of Man United. He is what he calls a ‘city-boy’, but the kind from a grimy grey corner of a fag end of a satellite town of the cold north. The kind who wears a hoody with the hood up, slouches his shoulders and holds cigarettes between two fingers inside his palm to stop them getting rained on. In a bus stop.
Fast forward two decades to the mountains of central Portugal where we have somehow ended up. We live in a little schist cottage leaning against the hillside in an uneven tumble of yellow and rust-coloured stone. With a tortoise-shell cat called Peaseblossom and church bells ringing out a discordant tune every half hour, which bounces off the opposite hill and straight in, with the sun and blue sky, through our tiny ridged panes and metre-thick walls. I sit on the step. Scott is in the garden watering, watering, watering.
When we arrived in April, he surveyed the little garden under the olive trees and decided to plant some seedlings to grow food. How hard could it be, he thought. He had Manc-skills. So we went to the local market where Portuguese people buy and sell young plants to grow their own food. They all grow their own food here – that is what a garden is for. We bought some tiny plants which we thought were tomatoes, courgettes, strawberries. We put them on the back shelf of the car and they withered in the sun. We lost half of them before reaching home.
He looks up how to make bread on his phone. Buys some flour and something that Google translate tells him is yeast. He learns new words like ‘knead’ and ‘prove,’ and I watch him, the city-boy, needing, proving he can move into a new element. His loaf is a flop. It collapses and bakes into a hard, weapon-grade brick. He tries the baker’s trick of putting a saucer of water in the oven, and we wait, hopeful. De nada.
Scott bent over in the slanting late spring evening and planted his babies. He stood and looked at them, watered them, bent over them again. He had no gardening tools and we had no money, so he used a tiny tool that was a cross between a knife and a spoon that we found in the gas cylinder shed. He gouged at the earth, making beds, making homes for his could-be-courgettes.
A day or two later, snails had eaten half of the babies. They had slithered up in the unknown parts of the day and with their big chomping mouths munched away at Scott’s garden. He said nothing, but looked thoughtful. I went to make him a drink and when I brought it out, he was building small fortresses around the survivors, out of twigs.
‘They’ll never get past these!’ he said.
There is some rich-smelling dough in the sun in a plastic bag, rising in the warmth like in a fairytale. But when we lift up the bag to peak, it has not risen. It is limp. We buy more flour, more Google-translate-yeast.
Two stray cats, twisted, puckered, with eyes oozing, shat on his could-be-courgettes. In a day they were dead. We walked down to the village square for a drink in the June sunshine. Every garden we passed was a riot of health and abundance. It was a larder. Fruits and vegetables splayed out and beckoned at us with their tendrils, winding through fences, filling the air with pungent confidence.
The following weekend, we bought some baby lettuces at the market.
“Just five” Scott indicated with a gesture. The lettuce guy looked incredulous – and gave him seven. Back at home, he planted them gently, pushing his fingers into the soil around their little hearts. He stood back and they looked so fragile, so tiny, how could they ever be food? The next morning two were withered, or eaten, or dissolved into nothing.
One baby strawberry peeped out, whilst he was surveying the remains, green and seedy and shy.
The Portuguese sunshine was healing and kind, and the mountain air fresh. Scott’s garden was a little attempt to join in. Our elderly neighbour, in her slippers, shrieked and smiled at him, gesticulating and pointing at the lettuces, which were getting more food-like by the day. We would never know what she was saying, but looking back, I think it was
One day, on his way back from examining a failed stone structure, that had not protected a parsley stalk from a snail, with a tin of dough popping quietly on the window-sill, balefully unrisen, he said;
‘I’m adapting to country life,’ and he held up one of the remaining lettuces that had made it through, growing bushy in full view of the dead tomato plant, the withered spike that was the -could-be-courgette, and the tiny strawberry. I admired his verve, and suggested, as I prepared the small lettuce, that we lay a tiny lawn to cover some of the dry dust that was not a garden.
His mind was taken up with the lawn for several weeks, watering it, mowing it, raking it with a fork – we still had no tools. Meanwhile, the strawberry plant had produced another strawberry, and the recently acquired onions seemed to be healthy. Scott’s garden was tiny, the size of a bus stop, but he had grown it.
Every morning and every night he and the cat water the lawn, the flower-pots, the dying ends of never-was plants. Then one day, we realise there are two translations for yeast. We buy the other one. He kneads, and digs, and waters. He knocks the bread back like he is back in the boxing ring, overcoming fear, taking blows, and getting back up again.
His bread rises, then it browns, and we eat it with butter.