Authors: Deirdre Madden
for Harry, with love
‘I don’t belong here.’ The thought came to me with such force that I almost said it aloud, at once, but I stopped myself just in time. I know what he would have said, reasonably: ‘Do I?’
Later, looking back on that last day in Rome, what I would remember would be the heat and the noise. It was a struggle to be in the city because of that, but there was a curious softness too. The violent heat released the scent of fruit from the stalls as we walked past: melons, peaches, nectarines, plums. The fruit and vegetables were stacked outside the little shops in frail wooden crates. Near Campo Dei Fiori there was a woman who tended a stall, and she was singing as she brushed the city dust from the fruit with a spray of coloured feathers. It was the longest day of the year.
Ted wanted a drink, so we sat down at a table outside a café. We didn’t say much to each other as we sat there, but watched the people drift along the hot street in their gaudy summer clothes and heavy jewellery. After a while Ted said to me that, for him, there was always a strong sense of death in the south, because of the very emphasis on life. The sun itself that made the fruit so ripe and big, that seemed to make the people bloom so early and so evidently, mercilessly pushed everything over into decay, so that the fruit quickly rotted, and the people suddenly fell into a graceless old age.
I thought of Franca’s daughter, Lucia. She was fifteen, almost a woman and completely at ease with the fact, but I could see what Ted meant. I could see the short duration of that ease, and how there was something frail and uncertain about her whole self, as though she might at any moment topple headlong into being an
old woman in a black dress, with nothing to look forward to but death. Time and again I remembered looking into the faces of young women in Italy, and seeing peer back, unbeknownst to them, the faces of the women they would be some fifty years later.
So I understood what Ted meant, and in a way I agreed with him, but I wasn’t completely convinced, because I didn’t want to be. I associated the north with violence and death, and I had come south to escape that.
Deep down, I knew that what he said was true, and that it was one of the many things people didn’t understand about Italy, the people, that is, who came south to Italy, where ‘everybody is so happy.’ No one wants to shatter the myth of the warm, sensual, happy south, for if we did not believe in that, where would people go to escape the rigour of the north? I had learnt a lot about Italy in the time I had been there, but what I had learnt most of all was how little I understood it, how deceptive a country it was. And more than learning anything about Italy, I had found out more about my own country, simply by not being in it. The contrast with Italy was a help, but in many ways I felt I could have gone anywhere, so long as it was far away and provided me with privacy, so that I could forget all about home for a while, forget all about Ireland, and then remember it, undisturbed.
Once, I visited some limestone caverns up near Trieste, and it reminded me of the Burren, where I grew up. I realized then how much I loved that strange, stark beauty, the bare grey stone and the grey sky, the few stunted trees. I missed that landscape when I lived away from it, and had taken it for granted when I was there.
I looked across the table at Ted, and I thought of how I had no word to define him, or his relationship to me, and I was glad that it was so. I remembered expressions I had heard used when I was growing up, such as ‘going steady’. I found phrases like that completely absurd, they sounded to me as quaint and outmoded as ‘keeping company’. I hate convenient empty words, they trap you when you use them. Franca used to call him my
and I didn’t like that either. It was a word that smelt of matrimony, and yet it was vague, too. There was no word to describe the degree of distance and intimacy there was between us. I think I realized then that it was coming to an end, and that we wouldn’t be together for much longer, but of course I didn’t say anything.
The waiter brought me a little black bitter coffee, the sort I hated when I first went to Italy, but which I grew to love. The pleasure and fascination of other countries has never left me, and I hope it never does. One of my most vivid childhood memories, certainly one of the most pleasant, is of the time a Japanese woman came to visit our neighbours. Until then, I had never met a person from such a distant country, and I was completely fascinated by her. One day I went into the house where she was staying, and she was talking to someone on the phone in her own language, and I was amazed to think that for her all those sounds came so easily, she understood so much and knew so much. She gave me a coloured paper fan that smelt of smoke, and on a sheet of strange paper – pale green, with a pearly sheen to it – she wrote with black ink and a little brush the characters that stood for her name – Yuriko – and mine – Aisling. I said that some day I would go to Japan to visit her, but my brother Jimmy teased me about it. He said that I’d hate it there because I’d have to eat raw fish and seaweed. ‘You’ll have to eat rice with your dinner, too.’ That seemed really odd to me, for I had only ever seen rice cooked in milk and served with prunes. He told me that I wouldn’t like the tea, because it was green, and that they wouldn’t let me put milk in it, I’d have to drink it black. That made me think it was all a lie, for if the tea was green, how could you drink it black? I told Jimmy I didn’t believe him, told him I didn’t care, and that some day I’d go away, to see other countries. My image of what those countries would be like was strange and limited, as is often the case with children. For years I thought that New York was America, that is, I thought it was all skyscrapers from coast to coast. I was shocked and disappointed when I found out there were trees and fields too. (I had once told Ted this and he had said, ‘Forget about kids, Aisling: I’ve met
adults who think everywhere in America looks like Manhattan.’) When Yuriko went back to Japan, she sent me a postcard, showing the white cone of Mount Fuji under snow. The sky behind was deep blue, the foreground full of yellow flowers. I kept the card, in a safe place, together with the fan and the sheet of paper with our names on it. For me, they were magical things. When I grew up I did go away, but I never got to Japan. I had almost forgotten Yuriko, it was the first time I had thought of her in years. I wondered where she was now, what she was doing, and if she remembered me.
Ted interrupted my thoughts. He touched my hands, and, nodding, said quietly, ‘Look over there.’
He indicated three small girls, shabbily dressed and barefoot, who were each holding large torn pieces of corrugated
. They had approached a smartly dressed woman who was looking in a shop window, and tugged her sleeve to attract her attention. At once she was surrounded. All talking at once, the children held out their hands, demanding alms, while holding the cardboard out flat to create a little shelf between themselves and the woman. She was shocked and disoriented to find herself the centre of attention, when the children suddenly scattered as quickly as they had gathered, the smallest one triumphantly waving a slim leather wallet. The woman screamed as she looked down at her handbag, which hung gaping open from her arm, having been craftily opened and swiftly rifled by little hands. It was, of course, all over in seconds: by the time the woman had started to scream and the people around her noticed what had happened, the children were out of sight.
Ted shook his head. ‘You wonder how they keep getting away with it. Reminds me of the first time I came to Italy. I had had all the warnings, and then two days after I arrived, down in the Forum, exactly the same thing. Three hundred dollars in lire gone in ten seconds. Losing the money was bad, going to see the Italian police was almost worse. They just said, “You’re the tenth in today.” You could see they’d had it with stupid
getting mugged and then coming to them, as if there was anything they could do to get the cash back. I almost thought the
kids were right, I felt kind of sorry for them, even though the little bastards cleaned me out.’
The city was full of poor children, they were like the pigeons or the wild cats, to be found around all the big monuments, the Colosseum, the Forum, in the big squares and in the streets. Earlier that day, I had seen a tiny girl, without shoes, who walked up and down beside a row of cars which were stopped at traffic lights, begging at the car windows. When the lights changed, she huddled in the middle of the streams of traffic, which made no effort to avoid her, nor, I suppose, did she expect it to. When the lights were red again, she resumed her task, walking patiently from window to window. In the time I watched her, nobody gave her anything.
The preceding evening, just a few hours after we got into Rome, we had been having dinner in a restaurant. We had almost finished the meal, and were talking over coffee and fruit about what we would do the following day. The door opened, and a little girl came in, carrying an armful of red roses, each one sheathed in cellophane. She started to go from table to table, and was rebuffed at each one, the diners often barely looking up from their food to tell her to go away. As she approached our table I said to Ted, ‘Buy me one, please.’ He asked the little girl how much they cost.
Ted gave her five, and waved away the change. She put the green note in her pocket without a word, handed me a rose, and drifted off to the remaining tables. She had a deep cut above her right eye, her cheek was marked by the last shadow of a bruise, and her whole face showed utter exhaustion. Disappointment and bitterness were stamped upon her features in a way that would have been shocking to see in a woman of forty. She had had enough, and her face expressed the unconscious question: ‘If this is life, why was I ever born?’ She must have been barely six years old. To show her pity would have been to torment her. The child had reached the door again, and she went out into the night.
I recognized the child. Seeing her made me want to withdraw,
and I felt a terrible sense of despair. Some years earlier, I had read an article in a newspaper about child pornography. It was a short article, which described how many children were sold into slavery, how films and photographs were found, showing little children crying, being raped and beaten and cut, showing children being killed. When I read that, it was as if something had fallen over me. Suddenly everything changed, my
on the edge of the newspaper looked different, the sun on the wall, the feel of my feet in my shoes; everything, everything. I wanted all at once not to be a part of a world where such things could happen. I felt guilty, as though simply by being in such a society, I was acquiescing to its evils. I wanted to do something to show that I was turning away irrevocably from such things, that I could not, would not tolerate them.
All this was brought back to me by the sight of the little girls who stole the woman’s wallet. My face must have been as dark as my mind while this chain of thoughts absorbed me, for I realized that Ted was looking at me anxiously. He didn’t understand, because he said to me, ‘Don’t worry, Aisling. You’ll be all right when we get there.’ For a moment, I didn’t know what he was talking about, and then I remembered where we were going the following day. ‘It’s not that at all,’ I told him. ‘I am looking forward to going back, although I am a bit nervous too.’ He didn’t ask me what I had been thinking about, and I was grateful for that.
I’ll probably never know what brought Ted and me together, nor what then kept us together for that time. I don’t think it matters, I think it’s best that it remain a mystery, even to me, or perhaps particularly to me. I don’t believe in trying to analyse things like that. I know he was very fond of me, but he was afraid of me too. At first he used to deny it, but then he admitted it. I knew in Rome that it was getting to the point where he was more frightened than fond, and so it probably wouldn’t last much longer.
It was too hot to move. I wanted to go on sitting there at the café table. A short distance away, beyond the pavement, the phenomenal traffic of Rome roared past. I was glad I didn’t live in
Rome, I didn’t think I could ever become used to it. It wasn’t the idea of living in a big city that put me off, because I had once lived in Paris. In Rome it was a combination of things – the
, the hellish heat, the constant traffic. I remembered how it had shocked me when I had first arrived there, and, even after having lived in Italy for years, I could still evoke from it that feeling of strangeness. It can feel as if I’m looking at everything backwards, down a long tunnel of time.
I remembered standing one day, waiting to cross the road in Rome. I could smell the dust and pollution and could hardly bear the terrible heat which was coming off the vehicles and beating down like a hammer from the sun; the sun was like bronze. Every so often the traffic would stop, snarled up on itself. Suddenly this happened and I found I was looking into the face of a man driving a big white Landrover. And it was the strangest thing, because I felt that I was looking at a person from an ancient civilization. I saw the whole scene in terms of both time and space, and I saw its absurdity, for there was so much traffic and the jeep in particular was so stupidly big that I knew at once it was all bound to end. It was a completely transient
, it had only existed for forty years, at most, out of the thousands and millions of years during which there had been life. It was all an aberration, and it was doomed. All the big roads made for it would one day be empty. I looked intently at the man behind the wheel. He looked as innocent as a dead warrior. In his face there was not a trace of doubt, not a hint of the frailty of his own life, his times, his transport. It seemed extraordinary to me that in this city above all, with the evidence all around of broken monuments and vainglorious ruins, people seemed unaware of what would happen. Maybe one of the hardest things is to see beyond your own society, to step out of the collective
of your time, but it teaches you about things as nothing else does. You begin to see your own age not with understanding, perhaps, but with compassion. You see the weakness and smallness of things which are now great or powerful. Sights which might at other times have filled me with contempt now moved me to pity, such as the overdressed women with their
jewels and their expensive clothes in the
the pity you might feel for bones found in an ancient tomb, a priceless ring on each fingerbone. I pity them their deaths in a way that they do not pity themselves, and I pity them for their faith in frail mortal things, for not knowing that there will be nothing left but weeds and broken stones.