We met Amerigo 15 years ago under inauspicious circumstances. At four in the morning on the second night in our new home we awoke to the sound of a woman screaming hysterically whilst a harsh male voice yelled: “Abre! Abre!”
The screaming and yelling continued to shatter the silence as we ran outside to discover where the commotion was coming from. A feral desperation in the woman’s voice meant we waited only moments before calling the police. The cries continued from next door and my husband was half way up the front railings when a blue-rinsed lady erupted out of the house pursued by a gentleman with a perfectly-quaffed handlebar moustache. Although it was not exactly the damsel in distress we had anticipated, my husband tried to sooth the lady, promising to get her out.
“Don’t let her out! She’ll escape!” hollered the lady’s elderly ‘tormentor’ as a police car swung round the corner and we were brushed back into our home by the boys in blue.
Next morning we met the lady who lived in the apartment below Amerigo. “Does the man above you mistreat his wife?” we enquired.
She looked at us as if we were dangerously insane. “That man is a saint!” she announced before telling us Amerigo’s wife had suffered from dementia for more than a decade and he had lovingly nursed her throughout with never a murmur of discontent.
“Sometimes she won’t take her medicine and if I hear a commotion I go up and help him open her mouth so she swallows it and calms down. Last night I was very tired and must have slept through it.”
Deeply embarrassed at causing this stoical gentleman further trouble, we bought the best bottle of wine we could afford and went round to apologise. True to character, Amerigo was far nicer to us than we could possibly have hoped for.
“I’d rather have neighbours who would call the police if they hear a woman screaming than someone who’d roll over and go back to sleep,” he said, and a friendship was cemented.
Although Amerigo is in the middle apartment of a block of three, and so has no access to a garden, it does not diminish his love of plants, or his attempts to push horticultural boundaries. Over the years he has lent me several books on gardening and offered countless tips over the wall. Every time he throws open his shutters to the morning and walks onto his balcony to see the same view he has seen for more than 60 years, he breathes in deeply, smiles, and comments on what a paradise we live in and how lucky we are. In the cool of the evening you can sometimes hear him playing soulful Spanish guitar so exquisitely tortured it’s capable of making grown men weep.
Several years ago Amerigo was due to be taken into hospital. He called out urgently over the wall to come round as there was something he wanted to give me before the ambulance came to take him away.
“It’s an apple tree,” he said pointing to a couple of twigs in a pot, “I grew it from a pip. If anything happens to me I know my daughter will throw it away, will you plant it in your garden?”
Although I knew it must be possible to grow apple trees from apples, I had never known anyone actually do it. The patience involved, the dedication in the face of, no doubt, innumerable failures, transformed Amerigo’s spindly sapling into a gift of immeasurable worth.
I promised him I would take care of it and sadly waved him off in the ambulance, half expecting it to be our last meeting.
Three years on and Amerigo is almost 90. The tree is the first in the garden to get an extra compost ration and, although it is still very small, it’s thriving. He knows it’s doing well, but every time I water it I wish for a small miracle, a first apple that I can take to him and watch his neatly trimmed moustache lift, his eyes sparkle and a deep chuckle gurgle up from his chest.
Although he’s never had a garden, this Spanish gentleman has taught me more about growing all sorts of plants in the Mediterranean than anyone I’ve ever met; it would be fitting to be able to give him back this one tiny thing.
There’s a deep need within most people’s psyche that yearns to leave something worthwhile and lasting when they’re gone. What better than a tree that can feed those who come after us and, as Amerigo has shown, you don’t need to shell out loads of euros at a garden centre and live in a fancy house with a few spare acres. Just a pot and an avocado stone, a date, a loquat or even an apple plus lashings of love and care, will allow you to do that.