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The week after he left you, time did what it likes to do – pretending to stand still, flummoxing your regimented days with uncertainty. It was the soft sheets of paperwork and years of research that flung you across the country to the conference in Bologna. He laughed about you going alone and presenting the keynote. Scathing words that landed as heat on your cheeks while he packed his books and accolades, saying you were lost chasing a dream that you didn’t know how to catch without him. Your presentation was flawed. Gaps in direction. Not enough substance to match theory, he said.
The day was sunny and balmy. The sunglasses you wore rendered you invisible. The sign in the Basilica di San Petrino read ‘You are invited to watch the earth turn’ and in the silence Foucault’s Pendulum swung. It was like watching the insides of your heart swallow its own big mouthed pride.
An idea is no use – a dream is past being useful the morning after. Even sleep avoids you in the neon screen darkness of the hotel. Only a year earlier he’d held your hips in the rain shower of a junior suite and afterwards you smoked cigarettes together on the balcony. This time it’s the university standard double and one measly sachet of coffee. There is no other preparation that can help. Put your trainers on and run – past the beggar lady with her stumped toeless feet sitting in the same place for the third night in a row. The dawn skies purple as club kids get thrown out, clinking bottles and kissing cheeks, idling on street corners with desire beckoning them. By morning the swishing skirts hum past dragging ladies to offices, sliding smooth calves under desks chatting orders on their phones. Men in pressed suits sip espresso in dark glasses and smoke while the traffic flies past and the world goes on turning and even now away from the Basilica you can see the meridian line make its way along a brass incision in a marble floor. You imagine that line following you at every step. Go forward and the rain pours wild and fizzing with mist, soaked sandalled feet stamp in the cold dampness of a quixotic nowhere. You are becoming a shapeless shadow heading East – keep on asking yourself, what does arrival or leaving sound or feel like when you have no one waiting at the heels of home?
The nun made eye contact blankly and as the clock struck 9am – the time you were meant to be in the hall with the laptop – proving your point, presenting – you turned and ran. Down the steps accompanied by screaming swallows on the half-empty morning streets. Everything and everyone has a place to go, to be, to exist, even if trapped by walls and shadows. But you…where are you going? You overcame this with a judder and started following the man in the straw hat dragging a suitcase with one wheel missing because he seemed to have a place he needed to be.
On the train to Ancona the hills appear as a familiar as that green blur of your childhood on the horizon, coming and going, one way or another, in flight, in movement, mounting the steps, the swallows again with their singing and someone next to you leans in with the warm breath of sleep and breakfast, arm to arm and skin raw spoiled with the slow act of living.
Here you are at the port.
There you go.
The old man boards the ferry with the broken suitcase and when the black smoke rises it departs. On deck he opens the suitcase and you watch the way he becomes something else – placing a top hat on his bald head and folding out a red tablecloth, arranging tiny plastic birds all around him. He takes one bird, pours water in its wings and places it in his mouth. It sings. Curious children come over and some buy a bird from him. And the chorus of gurgly bird song plays lullaby long after the sun sets and you fall asleep. Finally on your way to a place where you are no longer anyone’s prodigy. A place where there is a pendulum swinging over a new dream and a thin brass line as long as the earth is chasing you there.