She unfolded the slip of paper that had become damp and soft as rag from having been clenched in her fist, for she had not wanted to have to search for it later. The paper said ‘Via Garibaldi, 16, quarto piano.’ She stared up into the heights of the stairwell at rank upon rank of closed doors, each with a single spy-hole eye. At the third floor landing, she paused for a moment, overcome by the stairs after the long trip. She sat for a moment on the bottom step, thinking that she would have liked to spend a while watching the fishing boats in the little bay, so gaily bobbing they were, red and yellow and bluer than blue—as though the colour had been painted back into the world. She stood up, resumed the climb and knocked on the door with the expensive brass plaque engraved with her cousin’s name in flowing script.
Two dark shapes appeared in the crack under the door. A voice belonging to the owner of the feet said, “Chi e’?”
She said, “A cousin of Signor Gerardo.”
The invisible woman said, “Non c’e’.” Gerardo was not at home.
The old woman waited, but there was silence. She switched her handbag to the other arm and smoothed the bus ride out of her black worsted skirt. The shadows under the door stayed where they were. A fly batted against a half-open window high in the stairwell.
The wife said through the door, “I don’t know you.”
This, not being a question, was another closed door. Perhaps, the old woman thought, being a member of a family is not as much a matter of blood as of familiarity.
“He’ll be home soon,” the voice said, “he comes home at six.”
There was nothing to do but sit on the bottom step of the last flight, out of sight of the woman behind the door.
“You still there?” the woman called out.
“I will wait,” the old woman said, trying to remember whom her cousin had married or even what he might look like now.
A small boy mounted the stairs and stopped in front of the same door, hesitating when he saw her sitting there.
“Buona sera,” he said in the familiar sing-song accent of the South.
She had almost forgotten what her own accent sounded like. The North was filled with clipped vowels and days as lifeless and washed out as chalk. How far away it was from here!
The child tilted his cropped head to one side, staring. “You’re not from round here,” he said, addressing her with the informal pronoun tu, as though speaking to another child.
She was, in fact, rather childlike, and fond of children, the unconditional fondness belonging to childless women who carry a treat in their handbags to give to any boy or girl they meet.
“Are you Gerardo’s boy?” she asked, producing a caramel in crumpled foil from her bag.
Gerardo’s son stepped backwards saying, “I’m not allowed.”
With his head tilted to one side, he reminded her of a bird with long thin legs. Yes, exactly like a little bird.
And like a bird, he lifted one leg and rubbed the shin against the calf of the other, observing her, unsure about how the old lady knew who he was when he hadn’t told his name.
She saw he was worried in the way that children are worried when they are convinced that something is coming to eat them in the dark, only to find it gone when the light goes on.
“I don’t know . . .” he said.
“Oh come! Surely you know,” she said with a smile that he found rather frightening as nothing amusing had been said and yet she was smiling, smiling, looking at him and smiling.
He spun around, crying “Mamma!” and banged on the door, which opened immediately. He dashed past his mother, who called after him “Antonio!” as he disappeared inside. She emerged from the doorway to discover what had set him pounding and dashing, and found it was a woman dressed in faded black with a trained handbag perched on her knees. A thin old woman like a million others, probably bow-legged when she stood up, with holes in her black stockings and tattered little shoes.
“Oh, it’s you still,” she said, her expression that of one observing a somewhat intriguing card trick. “What did you say to him?”
“I merely asked him if he was my cousin’s son. I see that he is. He’s therefore my nephew.”
Unwilling to acknowledge this further unproven claim to blood, Gerardo’s wife said nothing. The old lady slowly got to her feet, and the wife realized that now the door was open, she could not very well go back inside and literally shut it in the visitor’s face.
“You had better come in,” she finally said after flashing alternating glances at the interior of the apartment and the landing, alert to any sudden movement on the part of this stranger claiming to be a relative. Gerardo had always said that it was a true, honest-to-god fact that the moment fortune smiles, potential relatives spring from nowhere. Gerardo had said that, and of course, he was right.
“Grazie.” the old woman said, as she followed through the door, any need for a formal greeting having dissipated.
The hostess led the way down a hallway hung with pictures and gilt mirrors, and wonder of wonders, the old lady noticed, a telephone!
The other woman paused, at a stalemate at the crossroads at which two doors opened to left and right. To the right was a formal living room largely occupied by an ornate dining table surrounded by a phalanx of carved mahogany chairs. A burgundy velvet sofa covered in plastic sat against the wall, contemplating a low brass and crystal occasional table before it. The elaborate urn in the centre of the table was clearly Capodimonte and very expensive. To the left was the kitchen, with a steel and laminate table and metal chairs, a stove, a sink, a refrigerator and a small balcony beyond lowered metal shutters through which a fingertip of sunlight prodded and which blocked out the life of the courtyard—engines starting, children playing, a caged bird trilling, women shouting.
“You had better wait in here,” the mistress of the household said, with a wave of one hand whilst fingering a gold cross at her neck with the other. In becoming aware of doing so, she surreptitiously tucked it into the neck of her knit sweater.
The guest sat, handbag on lap, both hands clutching the handle.
The boy poked his head around the doorway and said, “Who is it Mamma?” To which the mother replied, “Wait till Babbo gets home.” The boy disappeared.
“Bambini,” the mother said raising both palms.
The old woman bobbed her head slowly and said, “Ah si, bambini.”
She sat perched on the chair and the mother, still on her feet and desperate not to formalize things by sitting, said, “Scusatemi.” Gathering an armful of artichokes from the wooden crate on the floor, she took them to the sink where she began to strip away the lower leaves with a certain amount of malice. She glanced furtively at the clock on the wall, timing the remainder of her martyrdom. The hands crawling past a gondola on the Canal Grande showed ten minutes to six. As she worked, her composure slowly returned in the process of settling back into the familiarity of kitchen sinks and globe artichokes.
At six o’clock exactly, a man carrying a plastic shopping bag suddenly filled the kitchen. As naturally as he refrained from kissing the refrigerator, he did not kiss his wife, but said “Buona sera” with the same singing intonation of his son. Gerardo was pleased with himself, brandishing his bag and saying that Salvatore had been lucky, a good catch that day. “Acciughe!” he said in triumph and the wife sighed at the prospect of gutting and scaling many small fish. The child peered around the kitchen door holding a yellow toy car, waiting for the storm of his father’s entrance to subside. Which it did when the wife pointed to the visitor crammed between the refrigerator and the table. The husband looked at the wife for an explanation. She shrugged.
“Who is it?”
“Says she’s a cousin.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Didn’t you ask?”
“What’s she doing here?”
“What does she want?”
“What’s she doing inside?”
“I had to,” the wife said, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
“She was there, outside. Wouldn’t go away.”
Having satisfied himself that the thin woman looking up at him with slightly watery eyes and a polite, fixed smile was an issue for the man of the house to deal with, the husband proceeded to address the same questions to her. She told him her name and the name of her father, Gerardo’s paternal uncle.
“There was also my brother,” she said. “Pietro.”
“Pietro? Pietro Ferri? The one who went to Torino?” as though referring to one long disappeared.
“Mori’,” she said, smiling.
“Si,” she said, still smiling. “Tommaso sent me.”
“Who is Tommaso?” Gerardo said, standing, arms folded and formidable.
“Pietro’s son.” She turned her face to the boy, adding “Also my nephew, just like you, little one.”
The boy was embracing Gerardo’s leg. In being spoken to, he hid behind his father.
“And what, exactly, does he want of me?” Gerardo said.
“What’s your name, tesoro?” the visitor said to the child, annoying the father, who said, “Forget about him. Give me an answer.”
“He says I am to stay here,” she said, adding as she heard the quick intake of breath from the wife, “I’ll be no trouble. I don’t need much. Back home there’s no room now, the baby, you see. Such a little treasure he is, but of course all the expenses . . . I don’t mind.” Smiling, she gazed around the kitchen. “In any case, Tommaso says I will like it better here and he needs to rent my room.”
Gerardo threw his arms wide and shouted at the ceiling, “Santo cielo! Che diavolo?”
The wife was staring at him, with an expression of agony on her face. He gestured to her that they should retire to another room. Theirs was a long conversation, during which the old lady remained patiently on her chair. After a while, she opened the clasp of her handbag to remove the remaining half of the bread roll with cooked ham and pickled eggplant that Tommaso had bought at the station kiosk
in Turin. Unwrapping it from its greaseproof paper and carefully poking back in the bits of oily vegetable, she began to eat, slowly and in very small bites, each of which she chewed thoroughly. Now that she was alone, she could think about the boats. Tomorrow she would go down to the quay.
When Gerardo and his wife returned, they found her folding the paper into a neat square, crumbs and oil-drips all down her front and little crumb-puddles in her lap. The wife dashed for the dustpan and brush with which she brushed the old woman down where she sat.
Gerardo said, “You will have to tell your nephew that it’s inconvenient.”
“To say the least,” the wife added. “I haven’t time . . .”
“You will have to take the bus back to Torino,” Gerardo said.
“The bus doesn’t go that far,” the old woman said. “There’s the train from Rome.”
“Well catch the bus first, then. It leaves in the morning. Do you have a return ticket?”
The old woman, without taking her eyes from his face, shook her head and said, “Tommaso said I wouldn’t need one.”
“Ridiculous!” Gerardo said. To his wife he said, “See what I mean? What, is this a charity for the love of God? He has the gall to expect me to pay the fare!”
He turned back to the small figure at the table, who was repeatedly clicking the clasp on her handbag.
“Can you please stop that,” he said, “it’s annoying. As I said, the bus leaves in the morning.”
She stopped clicking the clasp, sighed and said, “But tonight?”
The wife glanced quickly at her husband, who handed her the bag of anchovies from where he had dumped it on the table, eager to remove himself from a situation he thought he had resolved, saying over his shoulder as he left, “You can sleep in Antonio’s room, but just for tonight. My wife will show you.”
The wife did just that, marching the old woman down the hall, bag of fish still in hand, opening the door to a small room and almost pushing her inside. The single bed was piled with toys as was a small sofa that the mother cleared, leaving just the blanket with which it was draped, saying, “Good thing that you have already eaten, now you can sleep,” and left.
The old woman sank onto the sofa and ran her thin hand over the soft pile of the blanket, admiring its intricate floral pattern.
And there she sat as the evening came down. No one disturbed her and when the little boy scuttled into the room to snatch his pyjamas from under his pillow and scuttled out again without a word, she smiled at him and sat there smiling on into the dark. She woke with the watery light of morning to find that she must have lain down fully-clothed and pulled the blanket over herself.
She smelled coffee brewing.
She liked coffee in the morning, especially with warm milk and perhaps there would be sugary ladies’ finger biscuits to dip into it. Pulling up the blanket she smoothed it over the couch, fingers lingering over its soft thickness, and taking up her handbag, she quietly opened the door.
The wife was alone in the kitchen, washing used coffee cups. A single breakfast setting sat on the table, a large ceramic cup painted with red Tuscan poppies, two sugar biscuits nestling on the saucer. Without a word, the wife poured milky coffee from an enamel saucepan, after removing the skin that had formed on the surface.
“Is there any sugar?” the old lady said.
“There,” the wife said, pointing to a blue china bowl.
“Thank you. Please, a spoon?”
A damp spoon was produced from the sink and summarily wiped with a dishtowel.
“Your bus fare is there, under the saucer. Don’t spill anything on it. Or on the table either.”
The old lady nodded, smiling.
“You know where the bus stop is?” the wife said. “Of course you do. It’s where you got off. Yesterday. Remember?”
She remembered—it was at the quay, where the boats were. As she sipped coffee, she thought about those boats, so pretty they were, such colours!
It was so much better walking downhill, she reflected as she made her way to the lower part of the village. People like them can live in places that are hard to get to because they have cars, she thought. Going uphill or down is much of a muchness when you have a car. Tommaso had been saving for a car and the baby had spoiled all that, not that it was its fault, dear little thing. Poor Tommaso, he never seemed to be able to get ahead, he was always saying, “One step forward, two steps back.”
She had left her little suitcase at the tabacchaio on the corner because small as it was, it was too heavy to carry uphill, but there was no need to collect it now. She passed the tobacconist’s and the adjacent bar and the fishermen talking over little morning glasses of sambuca, just as they had done when she was a child. She and Pietro running down to the quay to watch the catch come in, the nets spread out to dry, listening to the fishermen’s stories they had always believed, even the one about the boy who was swallowed by a sea monster. She continued down to where the fishing boats bobbed gaily in the gathering light. The sun made a lovely golden path towards the horizon and she wondered if it went on beyond the horizon, on and on to the other side of the world, further than Torino, further than Switzerland. Her brother had taken her to Switzerland once, on the express train and they had bought real Swiss chocolate and watched the boats on Lake Geneva. Different boats from these, but pretty all the same. There were no boats in Torino . . .
The sun was warm on her face and she realized that it had been quite chilly in her nephew’s apartment—they must have kept the metal security shutters closed all day. People who lived where there was abundant light were too concerned about protecting the furniture to enjoy it. How often had she stared at a wall of fog from the window of the garage in which they lived in Torino and wished for the sun?
She sat on the cement bench facing the sea, handbag on her knees and stared at the boats. Each had an eye painted either side of the prow.
Such a lovely custom, she thought. They have eyes in order to see their way home.
Maryanne Khan was born in Canberra, Australia, and has lived in Milan, Chicago, Brussels, Rome and Washington D.C., before returning to Australia. Her second home is in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Her prose and poetry have been published in anthologies and literary journals in the United States and Australia. Her novel, Walking to Karachi, won a 2008 Varuna/HarperCollins Award.