Madeline believed the key to longevity was a self-sustaining lifestyle and a healthy distrust of plastic, especially Tupperware. She was a woman in her forties, big busted, with sandy hair, a sharp face, and kind eyes, whose matter-of-fact tone made me sit up straighter.
What she didn’t grow and produce herself, she would get from the local farmer’s market, which was a dusty, three-mile drive into the village. She read sci-fi novels, spun her own wool for knitting, dyed with coffee, raspberries, and bay leaves, painted windmills and sculpted with clay, played the guitar, and danced whenever she felt like it.
She wore dresses and sarongs or nothing at all and wrote moving poems about the night in a journal she used to stop the kitchen table from wobbling. ‘Kitchen’ might be a stretch in the sense that she didn’t have one. We made dinner on a small gas stove out on the veranda beneath the bamboo shading. We used tin plates and pots to eat and dish, old wicket chairs to sit on, the hosepipe for washing up, and paper lanterns for light.
When the wind calmed and the night sky was clear, we would sit cross-legged on the grass and drink cheap red wine out of tumbler glasses. Only then would Madeline tell me of her family’s farm on an island in Scotland, how she ran away at sixteen to London with the only man she’d ever loved, travelled for a year in Canada, sang whiskey melodies on a train from Paris, and finally came to Portugal for the unfolding landscape.
“Curvaceous,” she mused, her gaze set on the valley spilling from the edge of her property, “wouldn’t you say? It’s naked, open, fragile, and fruitful; so powerful.”
I know she wanted to say more but didn’t press, so, instead, I said, “I’m going to miss it.”
She snorted derisively. “Just don’t leave.”
I envied her for her freedom, confidence, and vocabulary.
In the mornings we would have tea and fruit for breakfast and build with mud and straw. In the afternoons we would nap, my mud-caked legs dangling outside my one-man tent’s entrance, work in the vegetable garden, swim, nibble dark chocolate, and talk about our mothers. Come evening, she would have her one cigarette for the day, and I would make the trek up the hill to the tin house containing the only electricity plug.
From here her cottage appeared even tinier than it already was. I would sit on the deck chair among the array of potted plants and creeping sauvignon blanc to phone home and tell my family there are seven weeks left till my flight.