In Loving Memory

Women are often silent about grave matters. They wait their time. When I was a teenager, my mother told me how full of hate and trickery her sister-in-law had been. Aunt Alice, jealous of her happiness, made trouble constantly, my mother told me in a flat tone, looking out of the window. I listened silently, with a dry mouth. My heart felt like bursting at the thought of someone being unkind to her.

“Alice was clever, convincing. It was always little things. Cruel words. Sometimes I caught your father looking at me questioningly. ‘My Alice only means the best,’ he would say.”

“How did you stand it?” I wondered why she had not left.

“Loving never empties the heart,” she smiled. She told me of the inheritance, the trouble over money, how Alice had tried to cut out her brother’s share. After he saw her spitefulness, he left the big house in South Africa and brought my mother to Italy. They had been happy. Now my mother refused to come to Australia, asking to be left alone in the ospedale with her memories. She had never recovered from a slight fall that had happened in the twinkling of an eye. All we could get out of her was that she had turned her head to look behind her and fallen over a kerb. The ankle had been set badly twice and had never properly recovered.

The light finally filtered through. The sign said Caduta massi (falling rocks). It is marble, not rock—the mountains are cervaioli, white marble beloved by Michelangelo, lying like thick snow.

My walk began in the Apuan Alps, green, soft-clad hills, with rambling old man’s beard, chestnuts, blackberries and willow. I walked alone. I like travelling alone. So different from as a child, being awake, drowsy, uncertain, and tiptoeing into the big darkened bedroom in Johannesburg to climb softly into the foot of the big, wooden bed. Stray moonlight lit their posture: heads inclined towards each other, my father holding my mother’s right wrist, her hand across his heart. I lay between their feet, making a triangle, my safety complete. At the first streaks of dawn, I slipped away, satisfied, somehow a keeper of secrets out of my reach.

Climbing narrow, winding paths past tiny churches, I watched a hedgehog snuffling trailing rosehips. The Bay of La Spezia stretched into the shining Mediterranean. Salt tinged the air. Velvety black butterflies drifted by as I drank thirstily from a clear spring gushing from a fissure, water so pure I drank and drank.

Shielding my eyes, I looked up high in the mountains where cranes perched in the marble. Partisans hid in these mountains in wartime. I imagined darkened figures passing swiftly along the terrazza, grabbing handfuls of grapes, beans and tomatoes before disappearing into the woods. Women must have impassively registered broken stems and bruised leaves at daybreak, working on silently.

I reached a deserted quarry, strewn with idle machinery: a womb of pure blazing white undefined shapes. Massive tumbling shards were recognisant of many things, yet formless. I thought of London museums, of graveyards. Of mausoleums. All the serious, cold, hard, high art, immutable records of death, sacrifice and beauty. No birds sang here. It was full of potential, yet already heavy with the past, sacred to sight and touch.

The sun hung high in the sky.

I had flown out to be with my mother for three weeks. My heart full of questions I had not thought to ask before, I hurried back to her.

Kneeling by the white narrow mound of her bed, I held her hand. “Why was Alice so unkind to you? Why?”

She smiled into my eyes. “Because of my colour.”

I thought of my father, the tall brown-haired Scotsman, gangly, with steady grey eyes. I flinched, pressing my pale face into the cinnamon skin inside her arm. “But you are so beautiful.”

She smiled again, “It was unheard of—a professional marrying a black African. When I broke my ankle, it was Alice. She caused it.”

“What do you mean? Alice died years before your accident. And you’d left that country.”

“Yes, but she called out my name—in a horrible way. Vengeful. I was just crossing the road in the sunshine. I turned to look behind me and tripped over the kerb. It happened in a moment. It was definitely her voice.”

My skin prickled uncomfortably. The air felt dark around us as I heard her words. She believed every life had an evil, destroying presence. She and my father had so much love that she felt guilty, that somehow it had to be paid for. A price.

“Because of my colour, your father lost work and contacts. Alice’s fiancé left her. But however hard she tried, she couldn’t stop us loving each other!”

Holding my mother’s thin, dark wrist with both hands while she dozed, I gazed at her soft, lined face and dark eyelashes. After she had rested and we could talk again, I would tell her about our baby. I felt it was a daughter. Maybe she would have our white skin and freckles or my mother’s thick black curls and beautiful large white teeth. Surely my mother would come back with me then.

With a start, I realised how hungry I was and, hastening back to Pietrosanto, bought a panino—sun-dried tomatoes, rare beef, rucola and pecorino—biting into the flavours with relish.

I wandered through busy sheds and yards full of huge rough-sawn chunks of marble, where blocks were wheeled, cut, polished and shaped, ropes and pulleys squeaked and groaned as blocks were manoeuvred into place. Sculptors chiselled local bluish-grey bardiglio, and imported marble, from rose-pink from Portugal to the black with gold veins, portoro. Black Belgian is the king of marble.

Long white limbs ended in classic feet, the second toe longer than the first. Hounds reclined gracefully. Angels with still white feathers and chuckling cherubs hovered above the scutterice, women sculptors, of all ages, who chipped and sawed away, their long white coats covered in dust, like moving statues. They were absorbed. It’s Fellini, I thought. Signs of the old marble trade were everywhere. Marble chips lined the railway tracks. Nobody glanced at me, just another tourist.

Sauntering among pastel houses, I found an old summer house built for the Medici family. They liked trout fishing, one woman in particular. A trout painted on a ceiling commemorates her. I stared at the brightly stippled trout, lively enough to swim away and disappear colourfully between the cool marble columns.

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