Rolling heat weighed down the receding spring. At night it had been quite cold, but now its sharp edges were muffled by suffocating summer. The shade of a birch tree was no longer enough. My tent would have to be moved down to where the cool air pooled at the base of the land. And then I could sleep again.
I’d have to extend my water pipe too. The further thin black plastic pipe reached down the hill, the longer its writhing torso was exposed to the sun. My showers occupied a contracting window half an hour after the sun dipped below the mountain. The water that boiled in the pipe all day would rush to burn me, then scream icily on to my radiating skin.
Beneath the faucet tap, I’d rinse the filmy dust from my hands and face, couching naked in the dusk and sun-bleached scrub. With eyelids still gritty, I’d retreat from water’s biting cold. I’d fill the water tank, cradle it under my arm, and step down onto the rough track. A lizard, hot bellied on the rocky wall, eyed me sideways.
The tent provided only flimsy shade and no storage. Instead I hung my food up on strings. A perplexing crop for a fruitless olive tree. While ants and flies were kept at bay, the heat even in the branches meant nothing lasted long. One day, despite the dry fatiguing air, I made a fridge: a hole wide and deep enough to bury a lidded bucket encased in wet sand. It worked for a day or so, but the sandy moat became a drop-pot for curious creatures. Their demise and decay made the food inedible.
Fruit softened quickly and was offered up to the nectar starved insects. Dairy congealed. Trial, error, scarcity and weary imagination left me with tins of white beans, pasta and jars of tomato sauce. I buried the tins in a pixie circle around the camp, keeping cool and secret from browsing night-time dogs, and perched the jars in the tree. By June it was too hot to cook and at night, too dark. For supper I had beer, or Alfredo’s parching red wine.
Still no work. Still no money. Still no way to fix the truck that could take me to the coast. It sat, uninsured, uninsurable. A defunct wreck, blocking the dirt lane out of the land. Dumb, immovable: a suicidal whale, beached and dry. Sandy grit began to collect around its wheels.
I cut the bland grasses that colonised the land. I’d thought if I did a wind might reach my little dwelling and cool everything down. Instead the strimmer, streaming petrol fumes, threw up a fibrous cloud that hung for a week, still, ominous overhead, before settling in a dusty layer. It rasped into my throat, so I covered my mouth with a cloth that, with sweat and dust, darkened to a damp ochre. The grass had softened and muted the land’s abrupt angles. Now with its clefts and scars exposed, it was naked, raw and hostile.
Displaced lizards scudded, shy, craving cover. Hiccupping cicadas, drunk in the moonlight, were shrill without their muffling reeds. Flies crashed into the tent escaping the acidic sunlight. With dull desperation they thudded against the sweating plastic of the tent.
The tarpaulin had unhooked itself from the tree, my solid shade between the blotches of inflamed ground. It was huge and I crawled along it catching its corners into the middle. Hot oil on my thigh, I stopped still, to see two puncture marks just above my knee.
The nearest village was a five mile walk down a straight, parched concrete road. It was called Mata. In Portuguese, mata means ‘wilderness’ or ‘to kill’. With nowhere to go and no one to phone I watched, for days, the marching frontier of swollen poison up and up the back of my leg. Numb, the snake’s territory soon almost touched, reaching around my hot thigh and with malicious fingertips.
And then it receded. The troops marched back. My tired, dusty body won, the poison drained. Relief was cool and sweet after the hot metallic worry that had sat under my tongue for days. Tomorrow, I said, I’ll walk up the hill to Mata, and I’ll call England, and go home. Enough was enough.