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Authors: Corinna Edwards-Colledge

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BOOK: The Soul Room
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Italy 1977

 

The sky is blue,
so so blue. Are there skies this blue in England? I don’t think so! 
Heat
sandwich
,
I am a heat sandwich!
Sun hot on my face, hot through the
red soil, hot through my back, my legs, even the bit where my ponytail is
pushed against the ground by my head. My toes seem a long way-away, I think I
have been growing again. I like wiggling my toes, mum painted them coral pink
this morning and they look really pretty with my new sandals. I liked the woman
in the shop in Rome. She was so perfect; her lips so red, her hair so glossy
black, like Rose Red:
her hair like ebony, her skin like ivory, her lips as
red as blood. ''Bellissima
!' She said to me and her voice sounded like a
bell, '
Molto Bellissima bambina
!' Then she tickled my toes and made me
laugh!

I am an explorer, this is a new world. I am the first to come here.
The earth is red and the air is full of strange smells and the grass is full of
tiny aliens. They sing and sing out to the stars but no-one hears them. I am
the first to hear them. I have come to set them free.
The sun is so bright
I have to screw my eyes up really tightly. Right on the edge of where I can
see, if I lie very still and don’t turn my head, there’s a grasshopper,
Collette calls them
cavallettas
. He’s clinging hard to the top of a
really long piece of grass, he looks like a man stood on the top of a
skyscraper. He is the same colour as the grass and his legs have tiny muscles
on them and he is twitching his feelers as if he’s looking for something in the
heat.
Here is the king of the cloud jumpers. He comes to talk to his people.
He tells them: she has come to help you, this giant. Do not fear her. We have
talked and shared food and I know that she means to help us. Come, gather my
friends, gather and join our new protector.
My eyes are aching from having
to squint all the time, I’ll shut them for a bit and just listen. The Cicadas
sing, a mini orchestra, I can feel their instruments through the soil
underneath me, and in the sun too, the sun is so white, even through my
eyelids.
We hear you oh King, we come!
I can hear someone walking up to
me, their feet slapping on the hard soil.
All is not well in this hot red
land. I have tried to save them but will they listen? Come oh great one, we
must show them the way!

‘Maddie, do you want to come play with my dolls?’

I open my eyes,
the Cicada king has hopped off his blade of grass onto a new one, and it’s even
thinner than the last, he becomes invisible when he moves across the the sun.
I’m tired of his kingdom now.

‘Yes, I’ll come Collette. But can I be the blonde one this time?’

‘No, of course not, you have brown hair.’

‘But you have black hair.’

‘But it’s
my
doll.’

Collette can be
really stupid sometimes, it’s because she’s so pretty. It’s the same in
England, pretty girls are always more stupid. I think it’s because they spend
too much time looking in the mirror when they could be reading or climbing a
tree or something. Her mum is pretty too, and her dad is really big and
handsome and has a hairy chest and talks in a big deep voice like he’s a lord
or something. Sometimes, when they’re all together, they don’t look real, like
they’re people from a story book.

‘I’ve decided what game we’re going to play. We are lost princesses, lost
in a forest and there is an ugly witch trying to catch us.’

‘Does she want to eat us?’

‘Of course she wants to eat us. Because we are beautiful and she is ugly.
She thinks that if she eats us it will make her beautiful.’

‘Witches are stupid.’

‘Ugly things are always stupid. All they can think about is trying to be
pretty, so they don’t learn anything except how to do bad spells and catch
princesses and things like that.’

Collette is being nice today. I put my arm through hers. It is very brown
next to mine, and thinner. My arm has freckles on. I hate them. Mum says one
day, when I am a woman, I will realise how silly I was to hate my freckles and
I will love them. Sometimes mums can be stupid too.

 

I think that
Collette has everything. She has two Cindy dolls - a Disco Barbie with the
castle and the posh car (I’ve only got the wardrobe and a castle my dad made
out of cardboard boxes but it’s not the same) and she’s got a box of lego so
big you can climb into it – but it’s only house lego, there’s no space bits to
make rockets so it’s a bit boring – and she’s got a dressing up box that’s full
of dresses and hats and gloves and they’re made out of silk and have sparkles
on like her mum wears at dinner at the weekend – and she’s got a Sinclair
Spectrum and you can do this thing where you make a garden on the screen – and
she’s got Simon Says – and she’s got lots and lots of teddies and cuddly
animals (but I think she’s a bit mean to them because she doesn’t let them in
her bed at night, they stay on a shelf all the time, and I think what’s the
point of them if you don’t cuddle them?) and she’s got so many clothes for
herself too that she has to have a whole room just for them. Sometimes I feel
like it’s not fair, but dad says it’s just the way it is, and he and mum aren’t
rich like the Amarenas because my dad just helps Mr Amarena know how to grow
good grapes, but it’s Mr Amarena who owns the grapes, and the wine that comes
from them. They all seem to like wine, every night they stay up after we’ve
gone to bed and drink wine and their voices go all high-up and fast and silly.
Dad says that when I’m grown-up I’ll realise that it isn’t money that makes you
happy. I’m not sure that that can be true, because Mr and Mrs Amarena are
always laughing and smiling and look perfect, and mum and dad are a bit scruffy
and sometimes look quite sad.

It’s so hot in my room tonight. All the grasshoppers are scratching away
and it’s like they’re getting ready for something and it’s making me feel
funny. I think of the Cavallettas’ King so little in the big air. 
The wind
is coming, hide my people. Climb down from your grass towers and into the
caves. She will guard you from the wind beasts but you have to hide.
I
wanted to sleep with Collette in her room again tonight but she didn’t like it
that I was the one that rescued our princesses from the Witch using a magic
potion I had been given by a fairy when I was a baby. Collette wanted a prince
to rescue us but I thought that was boring. And anyway, she didn’t have a Ken
doll or even an Action Man, just an old Cindy that she’d cut the hair off so it
felt silly.

I can hear them all talking on the terrace underneath my window. The men
go
rumble rumble rumble
and the women go
squeak squeak
and my mum
is laughing a lot. Then all of my room is lit up like it’s the inside of an
orange and there’s a big crash of thunder.  I’m not going to stay up here on my
own, not now. I run downstairs and straight out onto the terrace. There’s
another big flash and bang.

‘Come here tuppence, did the storm scare you? Come sit with me for a
bit.’ Mum looks really pretty in her blue spotty dress. Her hair is up on top
of her head like Collette does with her Barbie. I go over and cuddle up on her
knee and the rain comes down, but we’re all safe under the patio roof and
everyone goes quiet to listen to the rain.  The air and my mum smell sweet, and
she strokes my hair and kisses the top of my head. Dad is holding his hand out
under the edge of the patio, watching the rain splash off his palm, then he
looks at Mr Amarena and nods like there’s something good, a nice secret that
they both know. Mr Amarena nods back then looks at my mum and her hand stops
stroking my hair for a moment, presses gently against my ear, and the rain
sounds like a whisper, and I can hear her heart beating and it seems to be
going really fast.
Climb King of the Cavallettas, the water is rising; get
your people and your instruments and head for the high caves. The water is
coming and I cannot stop it.

 

Something’s
happened but I don’t know what it is. Me and Collette were playing with the
goats at her Nonna’s and suddenly dad appeared and said we had to go. We’re
supposed to be here till the end of the week. Adults are stupid, they don’t
tell you anything. I asked and asked but he just said mum wasn’t well. She
seemed ok to me, her face was a bit puffy but she wasn’t coughing or anything.
I cried and cried and so did Collette but they wouldn’t listen. Now we’re on
the plane and I’m not even sat by the window. Mum is holding my hand too tight.
I want to do my colouring book but it feels like she needs to hold my hand so
I’m letting her. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to the grasshopper
king. My tummy feels funny deep inside, like somehow nothing is ever going to
be the same again.

Italy 2006

 

I had arrived in
the village of Terranima white-skinned, plump and exhausted. Within six weeks I
was tanned, toned and utterly rested. During the day I gardened and swam in the
mosaic-tiled pool. I ate fruit straight off the trees, tomatoes straight off
the vine, and bread, cheese and salamis from the neighbouring farm. At night I
sat on the patio, drank the vineyards own wine (a light white sparkling wine
‘Sonnetto’, so called because the local Vintners said drinking it was poetry in
motion) and listened to the grasshoppers and the summer storms. Nothing I ate
or drank was touched by any kind of chemical. If you didn’t eat the fruit
within a day or two it didn’t shrivel, but disintegrated into an ecstasy of wet
rotten flesh.

I had never been so
almost
beautiful, or so healthy, and yet I was
completely oblivious. I could go days – sometimes a couple of weeks - without
saying more than a few words to another soul, and I became half wild. Sometimes
I would laugh to myself, a little afraid, and a little excited, by the prospect
that I might have forgotten how to have a conversation! My life had been
stripped back down to the instincts I had been born with – the desire to eat,
drink and sleep; and eat, drink and sleep was all I did - until the day the
last of my depression finally lifted.

I had just finished some weeding and picked some figs to eat with my
lunch. It was an incredibly hot day and I decided I couldn’t face food without
cooling down in the pool first. I did a few lengths, quickly and by now
expertly (I must have swum the length of Britain over the last couple of
months) and climbed out and sat with my feet dangling in the water, feeling the
sun suck the droplets of water off my back.

‘You are a very good swimmer.’ I turned round sharply, a man was standing
in one of the pale earthed channels between the vine groves on the edge of the
terrace. Although it made sense that he would speak to me, it still caught me
off guard. I hadn’t been addressed directly by another human being in a week;
the builders and decorators got on with their work, merely grunting the odd
'grazie'
if I brought them a drink or snack. The first thing I noticed about
this
man was the way he looked at me. It was clearly an approving look but it was
honest, not leering. ‘I am Sergio Amarena.’ He said clearly. ‘Fabrizio’s son. I
have just come back from working in Connegliano to look after the vineyard for
a while as my father is away.’ I felt no compulsion to cover myself so I went
and sat at the little patio table in my bikini and started to eat my lunch.

‘If you’re hungry please come and join me.’

He smiled and
came and sat opposite, tore a chunk off a piece of bread and chewed it
thoughtfully. My second impression of him was that he was like some kind of
exquisite troll, very unlike the rest of his family who were all traditionally
good-looking. His face was broad, square and intelligent. He had pretty, almond
shaped eyes but an over-wide, full-lipped mouth. He was short – probably just
an inch or two taller than me – but stocky. I guessed he was about a decade
younger than me, in his mid twenties perhaps. He met my appraising gaze and
held it.

‘I am sorry to invade your peace like this, I know you came here to have
some – how do you say in English – some
space,
but you have been here
several weeks now. They have heard nearly nothing from you at the house – I
presume this means you are happy – but I thought I should come and see if there
is anything you need.’

‘Your English is very good.’ I suspected it was better than my own; I’d
had so little practice recently.

‘Thank you. I have just finished the final year of my degree at
University in England.’ He looked at me again, unblinking. I noticed how
far-apart his eyes were. It gave him an animal air. I nodded, a little
flustered.

‘So is there anything you need?’

‘No, nothing, thank you.’

He smiled, got up and looked out over the garden. ‘It looks lovely. You
have done a very good job.’

‘It’s what I used to do. Back home.’

‘What is this grass here? The one with the wonderful silver seed-heads?’


Stipa gigantea
. It's an evergreen so it’ll fill that space all
year round, and those seed heads will last well into winter.'

‘I’ve always wished I could be good with plants but my skill lies with
animals.’ He squinted a little then, as if he was thinking something over. It
didn’t take him very long to make up his mind. ‘Will you let me come round
tonight? We have a new wine we have been working on – a Rosé, and I would value
your opinion. I wouldn’t expect you to come up to the house. It is so noisy and
full of people and I am sure that is not right for you at this moment.’ This
and his previous reference meant he must have been told something of my life
before and I wasn’t sure how that made me feel. I didn’t know if I wanted him
to come over or not either. Half of me wanted to be left alone, the other half
was anxious to find out more about this odd looking young man.

‘Maybe…’

‘It’s decided then!’ he laughed. ‘I shall see you around eight. We have
some particularly fine sirloin steaks that have been hanging for a few weeks
now. I shall bring two. We can eat them on the Terrace!’  He walked lightly
down to the gate, turned to salute me from the edge of the garden then disappeared
back into the tangled green of the vine grove.

 

For weeks I had
lived a completely unselfconscious life. I had worn whatever was clean and
suitable to the weather and my make-up bag had remained unopened. This evening
though, I put on a flattering grey jersey dress with half-length arms and
applied some mascara and a translucent red lipstick. I tried on various shoes
and sandals in front of the mirror and was amazed by the woman who gazed back
at me. I looked incredible; tanned, strong, and well and sexy. I almost giggled
out loud with pleasure. I tried to remember the last time I had felt good about
myself in this way, and realised it was probably over a decade before.  I heard
a call from the terrace below. I allowed myself one more glance in the mirror
before going over to the window.


Signorina
…’

I felt hot and shuddery and was glad for the breath of cool air that met
me as I leant out of the window. There he was: crisp white shirt against the
black shadows, a large bag in his hand that he raised triumphantly and shook.
‘I have it all Signorina Armstrong. Tastes you will never forget!’ He bristled
like a mini-matador, and the energy and enthusiasm that radiated from him was
so strong that it came up through the night air and made me laugh out loud with
pleasure.

 

‘Maddie, call me Maddie!’

‘Can you smell it?’

‘Smell what?’

‘The Sea.’

I sat back, my
belly full, my senses happily softened by the superb Rosé, and took a deep slow
breath.

‘Yes! I can – but how?’

‘We call it the ‘Messagero’ wind because it brings news of the ocean.
Sometimes, at this time of the year, and only in the evening, it comes,
straight from the Tyrrhenian.’

‘It’s wonderful to smell the sea again. It’s been so long.’

He lit a cigarette and watched the smoke twirl upwards and disperse the
various candle-lit insects flying above our table.

‘It is Brighton you have come from, yes?’ He pronounced it ‘Bright-on’,
as if it was a brand of cleaning fluid.

‘Yes. Well, Hove actually.’

‘My father said you had some kind of trouble, some sadness that you
needed to get away from?’ Through politeness he made the statement a question
but asked it unapologetically. I liked that. It was very un-English.

‘Yes. I was married, my husband had a daughter from a previous
relationship. She died and a little after that my husband killed himself.’

‘That must have been terrible.’

‘For a long time I felt like I wanted to join them.’

‘I can imagine that.’

Throughout the whole exchange he watched me closely, languorous yet
alert, like a dozing cat with one eye open. I noticed that he would go long
spells without blinking at all; particularly if he was interested or
impassioned about something. It was wonderful to be listened to so intently.
Without self-consciousness or pity or mock-concern. The look on his face
stirred something in me. A long forgotten cog, or wheel started to creak into
movement. I kept looking at him, giving it time to turn, for the memory to
surface.

‘My god, you’re the little boy – the little boy with...‘ I managed to
stop myself. I knew what it was I had been about to say,
the little boy with
the bomb in his head
. ‘...you’re the little boy I played with, the last
time I came to Terranima!’

‘Yes! Yes! I knew you would remember if I gave you time!’ He was clearly
delighted.

‘I thought you were too young to be the boy I met on that holiday. I had
forgotten your name.’

‘I never forgot yours Maddie, that was one of the most special weeks of
my life.’

‘Really? I know I played with you, and that you had a lovely nature, you
never got cross or shouted or had a tantrum, and you were only little really.’

‘I was four!’

‘Just four! God, and I must have been…’

‘You were 12 or 13 I believe, you are 35 now, yes?’

‘Yes, you’re right. Just last week in fact.’

‘And you spent it on your own. That is not right Maddie, you should have
said.’

‘You might not believe this, but I’ve only just worked it out right now.
I’ve lost track of time here, I’ve hardly looked at a clock or a calendar.’

‘Sometimes it is good to just be.’

‘It is, and that’s such a hard thing to do, especially in the life you’ve
got used to.’

He nodded and looked sad all of a sudden, I reached over and touched his
hand. He put his other hand over mine and smiled. ‘Well this is your birthday
Maddie Armstrong. A little late perhaps, but your party is here tonight and we
have a thousand guests.’

‘A thousand?!’

‘Yes, the
cavallettas
, they are singing for you.’

At that moment I realised, with a ferocity that took me by surprise, that
I wanted him to kiss me. A small look or movement must have betrayed me because
seconds after my realisation he leaned over the small table, his eyes lively
with intent.

‘You are beautiful Maddie.’

‘So are you.’

He laughed at that.  ‘That is very kind of you. Collette calls me ‘
Piccolo
Folletto
’, ‘little troll’ so you can see I am not used to flattery!’

I laughed too. ‘That’s one of the things that makes you so attractive.’ 
I didn’t tell him that the same description had occurred to me the minute I had
met him.

He looked at me seriously and picked up my hand, stroked the fingers
gently. ‘I hope you do not think that I have done this before – that I make a
habit of talking to women in this way.’ The quaintness of his speech made me
laugh again, though not unkindly.

‘I’m sure you don’t. Especially not ex-babysitters!’ I opened up his
calloused hand and pressed his dark palm against my cheek. The shadows beyond
the patio were so deep and utterly black you could almost imagine we were being
sucked over the edge of the world. ‘Though I’m not sure if it would matter to
me if you did. I’m just enjoying feeling like this so much.’ His other hand
came up behind my neck and pulled me towards him. We kissed insatiably, our
mouths locked, teeth grating.

 

Sergio came to
see me every day. God knows what excuses he made to his family and workers at
the main house but it didn’t seem to concern him and no other members of the
Amarena clan came to disturb my peace, or more accurately now
our
peace.
Fabrizio Amarena was away on business, his daughter Collette living in London
with her English husband; Rosa, seemingly uninterested in me or absorbed in her
duties running the domestic side of the Amarena estate. So as usual, the only
other people to make the slow climb through the vineyards to the farm house
were the occasional plumber or stonemason and these had got used to seeing
Sergio by now and got on with their work.

We spent most of our time talking or making love. I’m not sure if I’d say
I was ‘in love’ but I was definitely ‘in-passion’ and these feelings were
matched by equally intense feelings of friendship. Maybe I would have fallen in
love if I had stayed there longer. I wondered sometimes why I hadn’t fallen in
love immediately, as on the face of it everything was perfect. Perhaps my heart
was still too raw to give itself completely. Perhaps the emerging memories I
was having of him as a little boy made me a little awkward. It wasn’t the same
for him though, the week I had spent there just before I turned 13 seemed to
have left an indelible mark on him, made me his ‘lover in waiting’.

But these doubts were small, and I would still get a little jolt of
pleasure no matter how many times I saw him stride up through the vineyards,
their stems now nodding with fruit. One time he even rode up the dirt track by
the side of the house on a beautiful Bay mare to take me riding. I almost never
thought of my life back in England. I was a person without a history, or a
future; a sun-lit island where my past, and all the people in it, were
thousands of miles away across dark seas.

One evening we were on one of our long rambling walks through the local
countryside. The sun was low, casting the trees and scrub in a saffron light
that created vivid violet shadows. We’d always walk first thing, through the
dawn mists, or in the evening when the greatest excesses of the sun had been
spent. It always filled me with wonder that what looked like such a scorched
landscape could be so fertile. I reached out and touched the glossy leaf of a
Bay tree, I felt sad. Sergio squeezed my hand.

‘Are you OK
Tsoro
?’

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