I have not been to one before, have never applied for such a Fellowship; if the truth be told, a residency within a community of artists sounded nothing short of repulsive. Civitella Ranieri was a revelation. I could not have imagined how being liberated from one’s own home and the chores of normal living and teaching could facilitate the working process. I produced words as never before, sometimes doubling my daily target. Most surprisingly, my fear of writing seemed to recede. The heat and silence had something to do with it; the interaction over dinner with Fellow artists was a joy; the Civitella staff valiantly warded off the world; and the heavenly blue chicory flowers of Umbria starred helpfully, just as the Guide Book promises. Now, back in darkest Scotland, I understand what Civitella meant: it normalised the activity of doing my own work, de-pathologised the activity of sitting still for hours staring at a computer screen; it allowed me to think, without embarrassment, of myself as a writer.
Tokkie’s visits are a relief. Tokkie brings colour and sound. Unobtrusive, for she is no more than a servant, sitting on her chair in the backyard, she offers an invented past for the family, a history for the neighbours, a history for her granddaughter. That is her gift. Tokkie can shout and crow as she pleases; that is what coloured people, servants, do. It is the Campbells who have to keep still, who have to mind their language. Which is not such an effort. Little happens in the house; they have little to say to each other. John’s noisiness, his boisterousness, is buffed at the edges by the single gesture of a silent index finger Helen puts across her mouth. They have slipped noiselessly, imperceptibly, from youth to loveless middle age. The child plays as children do. The parents listen with wonder to the tinkle of her infant’s chatter running like fresh water through the house, but as she grows older the silence draws her in. Except when Tokkie is there. Then the laughter is heartbreaking. When she goes to school she makes a friend; she has also spoken across the fence to the child next door, a boy, she understands, but her mother says that one friend is enough for anyone to bear.