the sky the ground

Photo credit: antmoose

The waiter has taken your orders and Fa says, ‘Ah, it’s good to be back in Rome,’ but Ma demands that you go and live with them in Spain. Again. You reply as kindly as you can that it’s impractical for you to uproot just like that. ‘The children are still at school, but if you’d like to come and live near us in Philadelphia, I’ll make enquiries,’ you add, turning up the warmth but purposely saying near rather than with us. Your mother’s eyes well up and your father shakes his head, and it’s not clear whom he’s addressing.

You do not want to have this conversation with your parents in public. It would be more appropriate in the privacy of a hotel room, but the wedding of a favourite cousin has brought you together here in Rome, on the street where you once lived with these two people you knew better than yourself. But perhaps it is appropriate here, in the restaurant where the waiters would pinch your cheeks and offer you crusts of bread dipped in wine. In your ears are the cries of the street sellers, in your nostrils the sting of spoiling fruit—you’d know this street with your eyes closed. And closing your eyes recalls the sense of locked windows and forbidden gates. You open your eyes and the rows of green-shuttered windows, where spikes have replaced pigeons on the sills, and laundry no longer hangs, move you almost to tears.

Not the Rome of postcards, were it not a Thursday, this might be any quiet residential street this side of Parioli. But today Via Tirso is jammed with stalls and packed with people despite siesta time. The closest stall sells fruit, and the tiny slates scribbled with chalk prices inwardly delight you. It’s the same as it was but different. The prices are in euros now, not hundreds of lire, and the sellers appear to have been selected from a Benetton advertisement. Your eyes wander to the spot where the ancient toy lady used to sit and sew trinkets onto cards, opposite where Romano had stood behind his mounds of potatoes. Today’s sellers look new but less innocent. They have all their teeth.

‘What do you think about moving to the US to live near us?’ you ask Fa, trying again. He smiles and thanks you for the thought but no, America is no country for old people. ‘We’re staying in Europe,’ he says with uncharacteristic finality.

Relief arrives with a carafe of wine, and Fa pours it out in all the glasses despite you asking for water—the wedding and party the prior evening, compounded with jet lag, have left you feeling hungover. The earlier espresso at the hotel bar has not had its desired brightening effect, and now there’s a whole afternoon and evening before you accompany your parents back to the airport in the morning. You breathe in and out slowly and say you enjoyed seeing your aunt again, she was looking well. Fa nods and takes a yellow tube from his pocket, counts out three different pills onto the napkin in front of Ma. ‘Here you go. Have a grissino with them.’ She hunches her shoulders and tucks her head in. ‘Non voglio—don’t want to.’ When you ask her what she might like to do after lunch, she stares blankly at her plate. Earlier, she had demanded to return to the old house in the Roman countryside, but you said it would take too long to drive all the way there and back, and in the end she agreed that she would be just as happy to see her first home in the city as her last, a rare concession on her part. Now, you regret not agreeing with enthusiasm to her original desire—it’s unlikely you’ll ever return to Rome together. ‘It’s Thursday,’ Ma says, and Fa replies that yes, it is.

Thursdays were loud-flavoured air and restless pigeons on the windowsill, watching the street market below for crumbs. You observed those birds through the bars of your crib, until orange and black bead eyes fastened on yours and plump bodies jerked like they were waking. ‘I can fly like them,’ you said, but Mamma said, ‘Don’t be silly. Be a good girl and lie down now. She latched together the green shutters, ‘Time for your siesta.’ The pigeon’s rainbow wings exploded, the room darkened, but down in the market the sellers cried, ‘Pataaate! fiori belliiissimi! peeesceeee!’— like a beloved nursery rhyme.

Two pastas arrive for your parents, a salad for you, and Ma rouses herself enough to scowl at your lettuce like it’s a crime. Her hand trembles as she turns her fork into her spaghetti, but years of practice enable her to twist a perfect coil. You regret not ordering the pasta. Fa’s Roman carbonara stirs golden memories of protracted family lunches under the pergola. Languorous afternoons and evenings. ‘Looks like proper guanciale,’ you say, and Fa offers his fork, ‘Have some.’ You don’t remember Ma eating any other spaghetti than al pomodoro, the basil leaves resting jewel-like on the tomato sauce that tints the strands dark rust. She used to say that you could tell a good restaurant by this dish alone, while Fa’s measure was the quality of the house red. He says the wine is good. ‘How’s your pasta, Ma?’ you ask. She says nothing and the memory of her irrepressible chatter aches.

Mamma wore a yellow dress in the park, her friends gathered around her on the tartan picnic blanket and listened entranced to her stories. So much laughter. You played with Mark, Indira, Giulia, upside down on the swings, the sky the ground.

The food is finished, the plates are taken away. Fa asks for the bill. Ma’s eyes lose their fog and she sits up straight. Over the last 48 hours you have observed this happen after she has eaten and wonder what is going on inside of her, at the molecular level. ‘Si! I know this street!’ she declares suddenly. ‘We lived up there!’ Stiffly, she points at a window three stories up from the pavement. That she recognizes it after all this time is a surprise, considering. Fa hesitates before confirming it is indeed where you lived fifty years ago. He chose the restaurant so he must have known—he never gives up on helping Ma engage with reality. She looks around, the most interested she has been in her external world in two days. It feels longer than that. Ma’s superpower is expanding time, you joke to yourself as Fa pays the bill, then feel disloyal or somehow not like a good daughter should feel. You suggest taking an Uber back to the hotel, perhaps a detour through Villa Borghese, the park your parents used to take you and your brothers. ‘Down memory lane,’ Fa says, and the cliché irritates you. You expect Ma to agree but instead she insists on visiting Signora Maria. When you try to persuade her otherwise, agitation pearls her brow. ‘I don’t think Signora Maria lives here anymore,’ Fa says, which you know is his euphemism for she’s probably dead, a necessary euphemism but Ma ignores him. ‘Go and look, the name will be on the doorbell. Vai.’

Fa personifies patience although occasionally, like now, his lips pressed tight together reveal his effort to contain himself. Holding onto your mother’s hand, you follow him along the road to the massive iron gate. Above, the green shutters stay latched at the windows. Behind one of them was your room, behind another the kitchen.

Lunch was a crinkle-edged fried egg on white rice. Siesta was darkness and waiting for Mamma and your brothers in the other room to wake. The window was ajar to let the air in.

‘Her name is here,’ Fa shouts, childlike with excitement. You hold Ma’s hand and help her shamble across the road. Her hand shakes like she’s waving and yet she insists on pressing the button several times, slowly and deliberately. No reply. Again, you suggest calling an Uber but she’s not ready to leave. Perspiring from the effort of walking just a few meters, she demands a cold drink. You’ve just left the restaurant, but Fa says he wouldn’t mind a coffee as he watches his wife, eyes narrowed. He looks weary. Regret creeps back that you have not been there for them—the less-than-weekly phone calls cannot make up for years of absence. Christmases, birthdays, summers: you’ve missed quite a few. Your siblings have done more than their part.

Fa catches your eye and nods to the nearby bar with tables outside. Still holding your mother’s hand, you guide her to an empty chrome chair. Fa orders an espresso for himself and a Lemonsoda for Ma. You’re fine with plain water. When it comes, you hug your fingers around the cool tall condensation. Breathing in and out, you work on that pit forming in your stomach. Ma squeezes your hand and says she’s happy Fa brought her here. ‘I am glad we are here together,’ she says, scanning each word. ‘Do you remember Romano?’ she asks suddenly, and Fa says of course, ‘He was the potato seller.’ They both look at you and you know what they’re thinking.

Market day on Via Tirso, the sounds from the street were different and larger than other days. Romano’s voice rises like heat into the bedroom, ‘Ducento lire. Grazie, signó.’ His potato stall was right under the window, just around the corner from the iron gate all the way downstairs, six sets of stairs, you could count them, but your brothers couldn’t.

Seated at the table outside the bar, you have a direct view of the windows of the flat where you lived as a child. You consider that, since then, Fa has relaxed a great deal. You glance at his unbuttoned polo shirt and sandalled feet—time was when Father always wore a tie and lace-up shoes. A narrow grey, a tight little knot at the neck. He’d loosen it when he came home, which meant the end of siesta.

He loosened his tie and pushed out the green shutters to let in the light. He picked you up out of the crib and took you to the window to watch the street, all the stalls lined up and down the road—fat tomatoes and braided garlic, rainbows of fruits, strident gladioli spears, gleaming dead fish on glittering hills of ice shavings.

Once Mamma bought you a little pink milk bottle from the lady with the walnut shell face, who sold cross-eyed dolls and plastic water guns that hung from rusty hooks. You’d spend hours inspecting her boxes of cards stuck with pink plastic combs, matching mirrors, and sundry cheap toys. The milk bottle emptied when you tipped it back but, when you twisted it open to see inside, there was no milk, just bitter white paint. Father asked Mamma about her day and she shrugged, ‘The boys were good but that one’s driving me mad.’ She told him how you’d broken the milk bottle. You hadn’t meant to. When she made to pick you up you pushed her away.

The drinks arrive. Ma picks hers up in both hands and jerks it up to her face. Before it can get to her lips, she puts it down undrunk. ‘Wait,’ Fa says, and removes a straw from its paper wrapper. He puts the straw in the drink and leans her forward. Eyes closed, she sucks up the liquid noisily. You tell yourself not to be angry at her, that it’s not her fault she won’t believe plain exercise could help improve her symptoms. When you suggest walking back to the hotel, ‘to oxygenate the brain’, she rolls her eyes.

Fa asks you if you’re tired. ‘You seem quiet.’ He means quieter than usual. It’s strange being here with them after all these years, your surroundings at once familiar and foreign. But before you can make conversation, he looks past you. ‘Signora Maria!’ your parents exclaim in unison. As your brain connects the name, you turn and see her.

She’d been a massive presence, hair like a lion’s mane, a mouthful of teeth and roar to match, her bosom like she’d stuffed a pillow into her black dress. Now you stand to greet her and she cranes her neck to look up to your face. ‘Do you remember me?’ she asks, like it matters, although she hasn’t seen you in decades. ‘Do you remember me?’ Her eyes still shine like polished amber.

You say of course you do, ‘You’d give me sweet espresso with sambuca to make me sleep.’

She laughs. ‘You never would nap.’

‘We tried your doorbell,’ Ma says.

Signora Maria’s head shakes but not like Ma’s. ‘I was out visiting my son in hospital.’ She crosses herself and Ma copies her. Signora Maria insists we must take coffee in her house, and won’t hear otherwise. Fa leaves a ten euro note on the table as you help Ma out of her chair. The green gate unlocks and you remember that sound.

The portinaro always stopped you before you could get away. Gripping your ear, he’d call to the window for Mamma, and she’d rush down and smack your legs.

Signora Maria is laughing and wheezing as she recounts anecdotes from your childhood. ‘You had a doll, Teresa you called her, treated her like she was a real person.’ Her fingers reach for the packet of Marlboros next to the smartphone on the coffee table. On the wall you recognize the picture of Pope John XXIII, the jolly-looking one. Faded now, it hasn’t moved from its spot above the pink marble console table, but the old grey telephone set has been replaced by a plastic plant.

Teresa had a soft body, hard head, sharp little nose. You talked together, but Mamma didn’t let you sleep with her. You leant over the crib rail to reach her and fell onto hard speckled tiles. You rubbed your arm better, pulled your doll to your chest, made her blue eyes open and shut. ‘How did you get out of the crib?’ Mamma asked. She picked you up and smiled, her eyes warmer than chestnuts.

Ma’s irises are smoky and blue-rimmed now, but her scent has never changed. Roses and lemons, you’d know it anywhere. You sit and let the conversation flow around you until it reaches the end of the sprawlings about children and grandchildren. Signora Maria looks exhausted. When Ma begins to talk about her fears of climate change, like at a playdate for your kids, you stand and say you need to be going, ‘Thank you for the kind hospitality, it’s been lovely to see you again.’ Ma gets Fa to write down their address to keep in touch and Signora Maria receives it in her hands like a precious gift. ‘Write to us, even if it’s only at Christmas, we want to hear from you,’ Ma adds. Being with someone from the past appears to have reminded her what she’s supposed to say to people, not the recitation of her endless list of fears, which nobody wants to hear. People have their own lists.

Back in the street, while Fa books a car from his phone, Ma grabs your hand. She appears to have gained some energy from meeting with her old friend. ‘Signora Maria has aged,’ she says with satisfaction.

‘She’s in her eighties, Ma,’ you reply.

‘I look better than her,’ Ma says. Although her perception is not reality, it’s important for Ma to look better than others. She hates being old. Fa isn’t like her. To your eyes he seems always to have hovered around the 40-year-old mark. He used to say he never felt a year older than twenty. That seems a long time ago now. ‘The Uber will meet us in a hundred meters, on the corner of Via Basento and Viale Regina Margherita, because of the one-way system,’ he says. You all walk slowly past Lucarelli’s and thankfully the baker’s is shut until 5pm or there would have been another hour of reminiscing.

A lovely sour smell. Mamma bought springy bread there, red-wrapped Rossana sweets too, and the lady with the white coat used a silver scoop to fill a little bag. You stood on tiptoe at the counter to choose a soft shiny roll with mortadella. You picked out the glistening white fat squares and dropped them on the street cobbles for the pigeons who scattered as Mamma pulled you through string bags and legs and shoes.

At the potato stall, Romano was finishing with a customer. ‘We’re next,’ Mamma said. Romano asked about the family. Slipping your hand out of hot fingers, you watched your brothers’ red shorts jiggle on the line three windows up from the street. A fly landed on Romano’s weighing scales. Its wings had the same rainbows as a pigeon’s. The fly crawled and stopped to rub its hands together, all-seeing orange eyes twitching. You peeked through the dark gap between the canvas table-covers that hid full sacks of potatoes. When you came out from under there, red-faced Mamma, a deep cleft between her eyes, grabbed your hand. ‘Never leave me.’ She squeezed your fingers hard. ‘I was here,’ you cried. ‘I was always here.’

Fa directs the Uber driver to towards Villa Borghese, ‘The entrance off Viale Rossini.’ He hasn’t been back to Rome in at least a decade, but still remembers its maze of roads. He chats with the Moroccan driver about the Atlas Mountains as Ma stares out of the window. You recognize the stone urns on the monumental gateway at the park entrance, and excitement flutters.

Seated with your brothers in the blue pushchair, you glided through the gate. Next to you, Gian picked at a scab on his knee. In front, Alex wriggled. He’d just learnt to walk and wanted to be out of his seat. Fa pushed you along the path under the umbrella pines—red trunks, green needles, spiky pinecones. There were birds in the trees, not pigeons but little songbirds—uccellini. You took a ride in the red pony cart, you and your brothers sat behind the man with the tattered straw hat and the long bridle and the two plump ponies. Gian and Alex were pinching each other and giggling. Mamma waved and the ponies began to clop. The breeze blew your hair over your face and made the air taste of dust. You shut your eyes and held out your arms like you were flying.

‘Didn’t you take us to a little movie house here?’ you ask Fa. He replies that was a different park, Villa Ada, but Ma says it was definitely here in Villa Borghese. Her memory is often better about ancient times. You tell her you watched the three little pigs there and she is surprised you remember the tiny grey cinema, perhaps once a carriage house, its plain square room with just a few rough benches.

You sat between Mamma and Father, the boys on their laps. The room darkened and the three little pigs appeared on the cracked wall. The pigs sang and the air smelt of olives. You stretched your leg and pressed down your shoe on the satisfying crunch of fallen snacks. On the wall, the wolf’s enormous mouth was full of teeth. You told yourself he was not real, but Alex began to cry. In the dark, Mamma’s voice said don’t be afraid.

After the tour through the park, the Uber drops you off at the hotel, one of a generic chain but well-located for the wedding. Your room connects with your parents’—you made sure of that. Through the open door you hear Ma worrying about the shower head in the bathroom, as she does. ‘Dirty, dirty, dirty,’ she’s saying, although it’s likely just minute calcium deposits. Her phobias resurface with any break in her routine. Intending to help, you step into their room as Fa, ever prepared, pulls out a shiny chrome shower head from his suitcase and goes into the bathroom. You tell yourself that this is why it’s impractical for your parents to live with you—your house contains too many unacceptable furnishings and memories.

Ma sits on the bed. ‘I wonder what happened to your doll Teresa,’ she says. You say you don’t know because that’s easier. If she remembers, she’ll get upset and then she won’t sleep; a grim picture in a magazine, a black uniform, bunches of flowers left by the side of a road, are all it takes to distress her now. You talk about your daughter’s doll although she no longer plays with such things—she’s at university now. ‘She loves the doll you gave her, Ma.’ That happy deceit can be enough to ensure your mother will sleep like a baby tonight. ‘The shower head doesn’t fit,’ Fa says. ‘They’re sending up someone to help.’

Back in your room, you set your phone alarm for an hour and lie on the bed. You daydream of Romano’s song of potatoes—pataaate romaaane belliiisssime!—the soundtrack of your siesta in the apartment at Via Tirso.

The pigeon at the window shook its feathers, watched you a moment, paddled its feet, and turned to nod at the street below. You threw your doll out of the crib, grabbed the rail and swiftly lifted a leg over, the rest of your body following fluid as water. The bird shivered and turned to look at you, its beak black and pointed below its white moustache, short red legs under the fat grey belly. You crept closer but the window was too high.

Sometimes at bedtime, Father sat on the stool by the crib and told you a story until you closed your eyes. One day, you dragged the stool along the floor to the window and climbed on it but you were too small to see. Another day you were tall enough to rest your chin on the cold stone sill. You got down from the stool and dragged it back near the crib, pulled yourself back up into bed, stuck your thumb in your mouth, and made yourself small again.

The alarm buzzes. You stretch and get up to unpack your outfit and sandals—neutral, non-iron, and comfortable. Sensible. You are what you are. Through the wall come muffled voices. You knock on the interconnecting door, open it a fraction and ask if assistance is needed. ‘All fine,’ Fa calls back, but Ma is whimpering: ‘Are you sure it’s Thursday? Are you sure it’s not Tuesday?’ Fa says it’s definitely Thursday. You hear the shower come on and go in to help. It shouldn’t just be up to Fa but Ma’s embarrassed when you offer to undress her. ‘No,’ she says. ‘No.’

Back in your room you open your window and traffic sounds pour in. In the leafy square below, an old man is selling bags of seed. A child throws a handful up in the air and pigeons descend. The grey windowsill is marked with grime and time.

Mamma had put the doll on the sill, a punishment for something. You pulled yourself over the crib rail and landed noiselessly. You dragged the stool to the open window, and easily reached across the stone slab. You craned your neck to Romano below, you knew his curly black hair and his potato-brown shirt. The street was end-to-end heads, coloured hats, and overlapping umbrellas. Above them, birds flew and, at the windows opposite, shirts and shorts and socks fluttered on the lines. Your knee lifted up, you twisted and sat your bottom on the cold stone, your legs dangling. You pulled your doll in your lap and watched the birds swoop up and around, wings spread out.

Nights, darkness in the window, you’d had wings every bit as green and blue and purple as theirs. When you’d opened your wings, they’d filled the sky.

Suddenly, the doll arced out into the air and seemed to pause before dropping down onto the potatoes below. Her fixed blue eyes stared as you waved at Romano. He yelled, ‘Bambina! Che fai?’ The people around flapped and shouted but Romano’s voice was loudest. ‘Signora!’ he shouted, ‘Signora, la bambina!’ his face white as milk. Then the door was ringing and banging. You turned your ear to Mamma’s room, to the thud of steps, the clink of the front door chain, urgent voices. You turned your head and Mamma, white as Romano, stepped slowly towards you, arms open. Squeezing you hard against her chest, she held you until Father came home. Later, their words were sharp in the night, about the window, la finestra.

Dinner is more upbeat, as though the three of you have decided that come what may you will enjoy yourselves. Having conceded to a glass of wine, you’re relaxed for the first time since arriving in Rome. You tell Ma how much you appreciate your childhood, how special that was. You reminisce about the afternoons in Villa Borghese. She nods but cannot form the words she wants. ‘I am glad, I am so glad,’ she says again and again, just a fragment of her intention. You turn to Fa to include him, recalling favourite family stories about his concoctions of leftovers—’Spaghetti and sardine omelette surprise’—and he chuckles. You will remember this evening fondly.

Later, sleep comes at last.

In the morning at the airport, Ma whimpers, ‘Don’t leave me.’

Shushing her, Fa holds her hand, ‘It’s all right, we’ve all got to go home.’

You say you have to get back to your own children.

‘You always leave,’ she says.

‘Not always,’ you say, although that’s not the point.

Overly cheerful, Fa says, ‘We had a lovely time, didn’t we. We’ll see you again soon?’ Couched as a question, it’s a statement.

‘Yes, soon.’ You mean it, although soon is relative along time’s continuum.

Their flight is departing earlier than yours, and you say it’s lucky there are no delays. When you kiss your mother, she won’t let go. ‘We’ll come and visit at Christmas,’ you hear yourself promise, a fixed date, something for them to look forward to, which satisfies her enough to release her grip.

You stand there watching them shuffle through departures. The unwritten rule is that you never leave until you lose sight of each other. At the far end of the security hall, just before they turn to the gates, Fa and Ma are smiling, holding hands, waving. Suddenly afraid, you wave back with enthusiasm and make a wide grin, so they’ll remember you happy too.

Zoë Fairtlough

Zoë Fairtlough writes about outsiders, science, ice cream, and family life. Her short stories, essays, and translations appear in Litro, La Piccioletta Barca, and Typishly. She is also working on two novels. When not frantically reading and writing, she is tending to her family and garden, and consulting on communications.

Zoë Fairtlough writes about outsiders, science, ice cream, and family life. Her short stories, essays, and translations appear in Litro, La Piccioletta Barca, and Typishly. She is also working on two novels. When not frantically reading and writing, she is tending to her family and garden, and consulting on communications.

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