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Altesa is in the rain, the rain starts as the bus rumbles down from the head of the valley towards the coast, fat drops spattering on the window against which I rest my face, and it is still falling when the bus pulls away, tyres hissing on the slick flagstones, leaving me standing on the north side of the square. It is a little after five in the afternoon, and the square is almost deserted. A young man is taking in chairs and tables under the awning of the café-bar across from me: he is the only person I can see. I stand in the partial shelter of a plane tree, the suitcase with the pictures propped against my leg. I see myself for a moment as part of the scene, in the way I sometimes do, and realize I look like someone lost—a middle-aged man who has fallen asleep on his bus and, waking in a panic, jumped off at the wrong stop. An out-of-season tourist who has lost his coach party.
Nothing much has changed. The few shops, the small church with its seventeen white steps. The few streets winding off—no signposts, but I know where each of them goes. The drinking-fountain with the lion’s head that sits in the corner opposite the church: Lena’s church. On the steps there, the water lies in sheets, not running away, and I remember Lena saying the terraces in the valley are like that. To keep the water. And I remember telling Jamie, to try to satisfy some of his questions about the valley, and I remember him accepting it, soaking the information away into himself, moving on to something different.
When it’s sunny, the space around you here is white, all white, capped with blue, and the eye is drawn and caught by the bright scatter of water from the lion’s mouth. Some things are different, I notice. The café is no longer Toni’s: the red, cursive script in the window reads Café Co-Co, and the chairs and tables now gathered in are plastic. Small details. They feel bright and brash on my eyes, intrusive.
Up close, I know that the lion’s face is almost as big as mine; but from a distance he looks small, like a toy or a tame lion. His eyes are dark and sometimes I think he looks sad. The tumble of mane around his face is deep brown, sea-brown, the colour the metal he’s made of goes after a long time. It’s bronze, I know now; bronze like the sundial on the church wall, and some of the numbers on the gateposts. Like the dandelion clock, too.
I blink. The young man, the waiter from across the square, is right beside me, staring at me with a look that is half amusement, half concern. I wonder for an instant how long he has been there.
“Signore, there is no other bus here for a long time. Where is it you want to go?”
He speaks in English, and again there is a little surge of petulance in me. But then I remember how I must look—more so now, with the shoulders of my pale jacket splotched with rainwater, and rain running over my face, standing as if frozen to the spot. I shake my head. “No. I’m not going anywhere. I was just—thinking. I’m all right.”
He raises his eyebrows. “Your Italian is excellent,” he says, switching languages.
“I used to live here,” I say.
I can’t help smiling a little. His accent gives him away; he comes from the city, not this little town. He is more an outsider than I am. “No,” I say. “Here, in Altesa. I grew up here.”
“Really?” he says, politely.
I nod. “Before your time, I should think.”
“Ah,” he says. “Well, come in for a drink some time, yes?”
I glance at the street which leads to the boarding house, and my eyes skip off it to the road leading up out towards the edge of town. “Yes,” I say. “Yes, of course,” though I doubt I’ll have the time.
“And welcome home.” He smiles again, and goes back across the square through the gradually thinning rain. When he reaches the awning, he turns, gives me one brief, curious glance before disappearing into the dark doorway of the bar. The square is silent again, except for the rainfall.
I heft the strap of my suitcase across my shoulder and wipe the rain from my face.
I never meant to come back to Altesa. I thought I had no reason to. When I last left, twenty-six years ago, the place felt hollow: all that had once filled it was gone. I left sure that I could discard it.
Then, a fortnight ago, there’s the phone call, and everything changes. Lena has died, a few weeks short of her eighty-fourth birthday. The house is empty now, and there are decisions to be made: whether to sell, to rent it out again, to have work done on it. I know at once that I have to come myself. Max wants me to do it all by phone—get a surveyor in, have the solicitors in Salerno handle everything; but I can’t. It’s my house, and I shall check it over in person. When I see he’s genuinely worried about how much time this will take, I reassure him that there’s nothing much to do. Just look things over, sign a few papers. Two or three days; that’s all. Besides, I say, it will be good for me to have a break. The past few months have been exhausting. A chance to escape from London and all the endless preparations will do me good. In the end, he relents.
I think about it all on the plane to Naples, and on the train to Salerno, and on the bus all down the forty-mile stretch to the head of the valley: about how I’ve lied to Max. There’s no point my coming here, not really. He’s quite right that it could all be handled easily enough over the phone. It’s not even that I’m keen to see Altesa again: it’s hard to imagine that the hollowness has in any way ebbed over the past twenty-six years. It’s none of that. In my suitcase, I have over a hundred and fifty eleven-by-fourteen photographs which are the real reason for this trip. But I can’t tell Max that; he’d think I was mad.
I have come here to try to settle myself, and to try to understand. I have the photographs, and I have some time to myself; I hope that out of these two things will come some measure of calm, or comprehension. The house, Altesa, coming back to Italy—it’s all really just an excuse to spend some time with the images which I have begun to realize trouble me so deeply.
I can’t really explain it, even to myself. I just know it’s important, and that I have to resolve it one way or another. I leave the square behind me. My footsteps are muted by the rain as I walk, and I keep my eyes on the road until the valley starts to open up around me.
The valley is sharp, and Altesa extends about a quarter of the way up it from the sea. The buildings of the town are huddled together between shoulders of land that rise on either side. From the very top of the town, the coast is only an hour’s walk away, if you’re young. You can go the whole way in bare feet in that time. The beaches are rocky, and there are inlets and coves hidden away which can be reached only by the cliffs, or by scrambling around promontories. In summer, the sea from the cliffs is hugely blue, like deeply fired ceramic, but glittering with motion. Gentle Mediterranean currents guide the shoals of fishes, and underwater the rocks are furred with weed and patterned with constantly moving bands of cool light.
Above the town, the valley steepens, and the road to the north winds to and fro between cracked stone and concrete barriers, some hemming it in from sheer drops, others holding back from it the scree which tumbles from the crumbling sides of the valley. All along, old farming terraces, left now for many years untended, carve regular steps into the landscape—though sometimes wind and rain and weather have eroded them, so that from a distance the lines are blurred or smudged, as if the valley is a drawing in charcoal which has been handled carelessly. Dotted among the terraces are occasional structures: houses with no roofs, or fallen walls, or trees coming up through the empty windows. It looks as though the inhabitants of the valley, once spread throughout its area, have gradually drained down towards the sea over the centuries, leaving these abandoned shells behind them like the high-water marks of a receding tide.
The valley unfolds through the rain as I leave the last of the buildings of the real town behind me. Looking around me for a moment, I am suddenly struck by something—a sense of things scratching at the edges of my awareness, pulling, tugging at me—and I shiver slightly. But perhaps it is just the cold. Although at first the rain seems light and warm, my clothes feel chill now. The tarmac underfoot is stained with thin, watery ochre mud. My shoes too. I concentrate on them as I walk on, counting my steps to myself for a while, shifting the weight of my suitcase across my shoulder: little things to drive away the itchiness in my head. I am short of breath, but I increase my pace, slapping my feet down in the rain and mud until my sides hurt.
The town is behind me now. The only thing between where I am and the emptiness of the high part of the valley is the last straggle of buildings.
There are four of them, settled into a kind of ledge in the side of the valley: big old villas set back from the road a little way. A wall runs along the roadside there, and over it spill the branches of trees from the gardens. The driveways are closed off with wrought-iron gates.
The house I have come to see—the house I grew up in—is the nearest of the four. Its pale pink walls, mottled with shade and rain and age, are just visible from the place I’ve reached on the road, and I stop for a moment, uncertain. The rain has eased a little more as I’ve walked, and now it is only a fine drizzle which draws across the valley in gentle billows when caught by the breeze.
I feel a stab of doubt. Do I really want to do this? There isn’t the time; I should turn myself around and get back to London at once, before I get—caught up here.
I stand on the road and let the feelings run their course. They are a kind of panic, but I reassure myself that there is nothing to panic about. While this is happening, the house hangs there in front of me in the drizzle as if suspended, until at last all my quick doubts and panics are swallowed up in watching it, seeing how it looks there through the slow gusts and curtains of vapour that drift from the tree branches. The little spasm of emotions is quenched, and I feel as if someone has taken my clenched fist and soothed it into compliance with cool, soft clay. I take a breath, and go on again. Before long I am at the gate.
In the rain, the garden is gloomy. The high walls and the over- arching branches and deep shade of the dark trees there cast everything into shadows. It is a shock, this first sight of it—more of a shock than it would have been if there had been bright sunlight and sharp, fluttering coins of light between the leaves of the trees. The shock, I suppose, comes because this is always how I think of the place: a dark, secretive, heavy place, gloomy and withdrawn, kept from the thick and dusty sunlight of the rest of the valley by tall walls and gates.
I push the gate open. The driveway, under a canopy of branches, is sprinkled now with wild grasses and weeds. In the borders, the rosemary and lavender that my mother planted have run to huge, unkempt masses, thick with fallen twigs and debris from the trees. The scent of them, and of wet fir needles and soil and bark, is heavy in the air, like molasses or yeast. I blink at the strength of it.
Don’t you remember these? she says. They’re rosemary. Here. Smell.
It has rained in the night. Just before it becomes light—a thunderstorm. Everything seems to tremble as the thunder rolls up from the sea. There must be lightning too, but I don’t look. I lie awake in my room at the top of the house with my eyes tightly shut. Maybe I can fool the storm into passing me by. And eventually it does, and I hear it grumbling its way on up the coast. I stay awake until it is time to get up.
Thunderstorms scare me.
Coming outside after breakfast, I find my mother on her knees at the side of the house. She has a trowel in one hand, and she’s turning out small plants from a potting tray. She has spread an old sack on the ground to keep her knees dry, and it’s scattered with loose earth. In the border in front of her the soil has been cleared for a space on either side of her, and in the gap there are holes, dug neatly.
“I’m going to get them in while the ground’s wet,” she says, looking up at me. “It’s better for them that way.” She is a little out of breath.
“What are they?” I ask.
“Don’t you remember these? They’re rosemary. We took them as cuttings from the big bush at the bottom of the drive.”
My father has come round the side of the house now. He is wear- ing the clean, pale clothes he always seems to wear. Today they are: pale tan trousers, a white shirt with thin rusty-reddish lines running down it, and canvas-coloured braces over his shoulders. His shoes are a sandy colour, like his hair. “What’s Mummy doing, Alex?” he asks. He is smiling.