On Father’s Day he used to pretend he wasn’t bothered but mum told us he used to smile to himself and tell her he loved us. Later we found every card we ever sent him in a plastic bag inside a box inside another plastic bag. We think they were in year order.
He stood three steps down from the road crossing and two in towards the shop window the back of his head was reflected in. Breathe, he said below his breath. Breathe. He used his thin hands as a brown paper bag and began to feel better. His vision slowed its spinning and he could almost focus on the police van parked opposite. Hello John, said the voice again. Not bad, he said, and yourself? But I didn’t ask you, said the voice. I just said hello.
That’s more than I’m used to.
That’s as may be.
I must be going.
Please don’t go, he said below his breath. Please. He unbuttoned his coat as if he had arrived home.
I was possible before you. I was.
But now, now.
The olive trees are dying and we must burn them, dry twigs, snapped branches, roots.
In the late-morning sun and the silence of the old men’s tears, the sound of axes. Hard hands are torn. Children watch from the shade, sparrows in the thorny oak.
For centuries the trees have given and now it seems an end. But we, green-hearted, hopeful, we shall plant again and our grandchildren shall harvest.
south sunshine starred night
pure colour pure light
I was reading about the boat full of people looking for a better life that hit the rocks near Porto Bisco when the south wind was flying from the tropics and how people fell into the foaming water as the boat foundered and how a few – very few – people dove from the shore and tried to save their lives. But the part of the interview with one of the rescuers that stays with me is this.
Interviewer: Some of the people you saved – do you know how many it was? Three children and two adults – say you told them you loved them, that you used your breath to tell them you loved them while you were fighting the sea, you told them that you loved them. And they all understood what you were saying because you told them in French, in Italian, in English.
Rescuer: Yes, I shouted to them as I tried to pull them through the water, as I tried to stop them thrashing, as I tried to unzip their coats, as I tried to pull their freezing fingers from my throat. I shouted. I shouted “je t’aime, ti amo, I love you. Je t’aime, ti amo, I love you”. I shouted in their ears if I could get my mouth near enough or I shouted it through the spray in the frozen air. I shouted and I gulped air and I spat and I coughed salt water. Shouted and shouted and shouted. Why? Because I thought they were going to die, they would sink through my fingers and the waves and the foam and sink to the bottom of the sea with the crabs and the eels. I thought I could not save them. I thought they were going to die.
And if you are going to die, what are the words you want to hear as you die? That somebody loves you “je t’aime, ti amo, I love you”. So I shouted so if they slipped to the bottom of the sea with the crabs and the eels then at least the last words that they would hear would be that somebody loved them – not their father or mother or sister or brother but somebody, somebody.
And I was fighting with the waves and fighting with their coats and fighting with their frozen fingers at my throat but my head was elsewhere. My thoughts were clear and above me, not fighting with the waves at all. And I thought – but where are they from? And maybe they speak French and maybe Italian and maybe everyone speaks English so my thoughts made me shout “je t’aime, ti amo, I love you”. And perhaps it could have been better if they were about to die if I shouted “Dieu t’aime, Dio ti ama, God loves you” but I just could not do it because I just did not know, so a person, a person, so “je t’aime, ti amo, I love you”, the last words they would hear.
The snow hushes my complaints as it slushes off my umbrella. “We’re sorry”, it says, “we’re April snow but we didn’t know”. It lies at my feet, is translucent and melts. Over the wall the river is rising, brown foaming.
Love letters torn to ragged shreds fall like confetti from the high-up window. Behind net curtains a misted shape, a hand.
John picks up ‘love’ and ‘always’ from the mud. Not his writing, is it? He flattens them smooth between his palms and slides them into his breast pocket. The veiled shape is still behind the curtain. The paper snow is thinning.
John’s hands are red and cold and the rain is starting again. He’ll away now, he thinks, while he still can, the words safe, next to his heart.