The river was late this year. It started to come back in a trickle at the end of November, interrupting the council workers who’d been digging the bed for gravel. Even the local mayor had been involved in driving the gravel-laden trucks. He gave me a wave and a toothy grin when he’d pulled off the dirt track to let me go by in Rollie. Perhaps because the river’s return started so unpromisingly slowly, they felt safe to leave the JCB digger where it was.
We had family members coming to stay. Their arrival coincided with the rain falling and the river rising. It got higher and higher and higher. It was the colour of builder’s tea and carried stands of loose cane. By 1 December we sat on the veranda and listened to the roar: among the watery sounds were the cracks of cane being thrown against the rocks. By that evening the river was as high as I’d ever seen it and the rain showed no signs of stopping. It was exciting, but we had a tinge of anxiety. Behind us our garden walls had sprung small waterfalls. A river ran through where we park the car and down the path to join the river. We dragged the small butts to the veranda and poured the water into the cisterna, and back in place the butts filled up again instantly. We were sure the council workers must have regretted leaving their JCB behind.
It quietened a little on 2 December. The garden walls had held; so had the digger. Our visitors left; their short visit rain-soaked but exciting. When we got back from the airport we noticed that someone had managed to get the digger on to slightly higher land where all the water it had taken on board could drain away. The rain got heavier again the next day. Eleuterio and Maria-João came by to check everything was OK. We tried to see one another through misty screens of moisture. Lordy the dog barked in an unfriendly way; he didn’t recognise me. The river wasn’t as high as it was two days ago, but it was welling, brimming.
Men came by with cans of fuel to rescue the JCB. They had to drive the vehicle up the river path and past our house; this was not the way it had arrived and was a very tight squeeze. It barely managed the right-angle turn from the path to the dirt track, then it crunched past us making a grinding noise that I was sure was the sound of ours and our neighbours’ walls being scoured and reshaped. I held my breath until it had gone then went out to check: no damage. We’d all got away with it.
It carried on raining for the next few days but the river didn’t reach its 1 December height again. By 6 December the river was no longer tea-coloured but running clear, shin-height, gurgling rather than crashing. The sun came out again. Most of the rest of the month was sunny and bright. On Christmas Eve we went to Loulé market to buy food and those curious bottles of alcohol one gets tempted into at this time of year – and which remain unopened – and to get our ancient axe sharpened by the old guy with the knife-grinder. The first two times we made our way to his table he wasn’t there. Most disappointing, since we’d dragged the axe along specially, but we were pretty sure he was somewhere nearby and that word would get to him. Sure enough by our third circuit of the market he was in his place and clearly expecting us. We left him as the whine of the grinding wheel assaulted our ears and those of everyone else. When we got back he handed us the axe with a nice bright edge: ‘That’s good for chickens now!’ he said. We rather had in mind to use it for wood splitting, but the firm oak we have as firewood is still resisting even the newly honed blade. The wood burns well, lasts long and is fragrant.
It was a beautiful Christmas: peaceful, quiet but for birdsong, under bright skies. Eleuterio and Maria-João gave us some of their eggs and olive oil; we gave them a coffee and walnut cake I’d made. The walnuts were from my father-in-law in Germany; the coffee was from a local café, where my asking for several bicas to be poured not into cups but into my jam-jar caused some consternation.
I’ve missed writing this blog, and left myself with far too much to tell you, more than I can squeeze in. Suffice to say that a few days before Christmas a small group of activists gathered at the home of one of us and sang a slightly scurrilous song written by Husband to the tune of a Portuguese carol in celebration of . . . the government’s cancellation of some of the oil and gas contracts. But the story is far from over, and there is confusion over exactly what has been stopped and to what extent, and every celebratory call is countered by a voice urging caution and another arguing for distrust. More next week.