In 2002, I sold everything I owned, obtained a month's leave from my job in publishing and went on a sojourn through Italy. I returned with a heap of photographs and a journal full of romantic scribbles. I've put together a book that matches pictures with words and is called "Where Here & Now Cease To Matter" and you'll find the concluding part of the short story along with
of the photographs below. The book itself is a gorgeous object: exquisite colour photographs, luminous 190gsm pearl paper, 8x10 inches. It's a perfect gift and will publish and ship at the beginning of November, just in time for Christmas. I'm accepting pre-orders now, so
I replaced the camera and notebook in my pack. After half an hour, the train stopped at my destination. Manarola twisted upward against the curve of the mountain. A winding, walled footpath trimmed with grape vines curled along the hillside. I popped into the local co-operative market and bought some grapes and a peach. After consulting the map, picked up the keys to my room from the Da Paulin Rooms office (after a generous salutatory shot of limoncello with the owner).
Toward the top of the hill, just before the door to my room, a trio of cats blocked the pavement in front of me. Like Egyptian guardians of the tomb they sat and watched. With a tremendous wail they suddenly advanced toward me or rather toward my bag of fruit. I tossed the peach over by the door opposite and watched a Darwinian struggle unfold for possession of the prize.
In the ensuing melee, I escaped to the piazza. Old men in caps and sunglasses rested on the long slate bench outside the church like magpies on a wire. But I reached my room and collapsed for a nap.
Later that evening before dinner, I took a stroll to the village's only Internet cafe. Europop bubbled from a piano-shaped radio as I asked the darkly attractive woman about the arrangements. After an exchange in halting English - during which I discovered her name to be Claudia, her nationality to be Chilean, and her relationship status to be unencumbered - I received my log-on and password and sat down to read the latest news.
Some minutes passed as I read through the virtual newspapers of the world when the question "would you like a bite of my sandwich?" broke my concentration. Claudia was all flirty blue eyes and I was quite peckish, so I reached over and took a hunk of prociuttio, cheese, and bread.
"So, you are a journalist?"
She nodded at the thick, black journal and professional-looking camera that I had spread out to the side of the computer.
"Well, not yet. I publish books, but write and take pictures for my own amusement."
As I flipped through the journal as evidence of my writing, the postcard fluttered down from between my fingers. She leaned over and whisked it up to read.
"What does this say? 'Manarola e bellissimo. Insieme, siamo luminosi. Desidero tu qui con me.' Did you send this to your girlfriend?"
"No, I didn't send it to anyone. I found it in a bar a couple of weeks ago underneath my chair."
"Ah, still you are artistic. So am I. How do you say, beads and jewels. Sparkling things. I string them together to make necklaces."
A single, oblong green gem hung in a silver chain around her neck. "Yes, I made this. Do you like it?"
"It suits you."
"Usually, I choose different beads and different colours, but I like this piece. A single stone. Simple."
Before I had a chance to respond, two blonde young women wandered in and immediately began chattering to Claudia. I tried to be as casual as possible as I glanced from the curves of her rustic dress, to the pendant around her neck, to those piercing azure eyes. The girls chatted on about their day in what I perceived to be very basic Italian mixed with heavily accented English. The blondes were German au pairs and frequented the cafe whenever their wee beastly charges were being schooled.
"Doesn't he have luminous eyes?"
After a few beats passed, I realised Claudia had asked the girls about me. At first the German girls gamely gazed at me, but soon became embarrassed, then coy, and then smiled at me in sympathy.
Claudia walked over and steadied my head with the palms of her hands.
"Blue or is it green? Something between the two."
She paused to consider my face for a moment, and then moved away sharply as if she had remembered something. "I wonder what those eyes see," she said and went back to talking with the German girls in Italian.
"I really must get back to the Co-Op to pick up some dinner, but perhaps we'll meet again?"
The girls made a chorus of "ciao, bello!" and I gathered provisions for dinner and looked forward to some time alone in which to write.
After my meal, I spread out on a bench overlooking the sea and began the halting process of transcribing the day's events. The smeary light waned as clouds obscured the sea. An old three-masted sailing ship skimmed the horizon. Echoes of Italian conversations drifted past, along the endless rows of vineyards that lined the hillside. Centuries of modernity faded away.
I felt restless and the intermittent power outages prevented me from writing and further, so I descended into the village. The glow of some emergency lights by the railway station attracted my attention and I passed through the tunnel. This brought me to the entrance of the Sentiero Azzurro which is the footpath connecting all five Cinque Terre villages. This particular stretch was called the Via dell Amore. I mounted straight, steep steps up to the path and set out toward the last village of Riomaggiore.
A few hundred paces beyond a dimly lit picnic area, I reached a stretch of total darkness. Nearly 180-degrees around me lay nothingness: sky above, boulders and sea below. The occasional glimmer of a cruise boat or merchant vessel and the distant collection of pinprick lights from neighbouring villages gave me the impression that I had ventured beyond my world and into the void. I returned to the hostel and drooped off to sleep until late the next morning.
After a light brunch, I went to bathe in Manarola's rocky lagoon where a crazy quilt of pallid and dark flesh roasted in the sun. I started to edge into the water but didn't realise the slope was covered in seaweed. With my arms flailing for balance, I slid straight into the water up to my chest. After a bit of laboured breathing, I acclimated to the cold, brackish water.
From a nearby rock I heard a woman laughing. "John?"
With long, steady strokes, I swam to the metal ladder where she waited for me.
"A little wobbly?"
"Just getting my Italian sea-legs. This is the first swim I've had here."
"And ... ?"
"Damn cold." I hoisted myself up on the ladder and Claudia handed me a towel.
"I took the train up from Monterosso an hour ago. I like the benches at the top of the hill. I come and bring a lunch and work on my jewellery until sunset. Do you want to wander?"
Claudia and I started away from the cove toward the sloping street leading up to the graveyard and the statue of the Virgin that overlooks the village. At the top, we took in the view. Claudia tossed off her tattered sandals with crisp flicks of her ankles. As she washed her feet with water from the tap, the casual sensuality of Claudia kneading her soles and the flash of her blue-varnished toes mesmerised me. Not wanting to be caught out staring, I tried to focus on the patterns formed by the houses built along the curve of the hillside.
"What are you looking at?" asked Claudia.
"Oh, just the village, the people out sunning themselves. Look down along the dock at the crowd of people."
She came over and our shoulders touched. The simmering, oily flesh of her shoulder tickled the hairs on my arm.
"If you consider all those people together, they're a teeming, pulsing, indistinguishable mass of humanity. A vague generality," I suggested.
"The guy down there gathering rope on the boat is cute."
"You can tell from all the way up here? Seriously, now narrow your gaze and take a group of ten ... then five ... then two. Filter out the irrelevant and you'll start to notice specific details: a shabby pair of jeans or the peculiar way, um, that girl's turquoise top puckers in the front, or the post-coital glow of that couple holding hands."
Claudia pressed her fingers against my shoulder. She said, "I wonder what they were just doing in the moments before and what might happen in the next quarter hour or the next day?"
"That's what I hope people say when they look at my photographs."
Claudia paused and then she giggled.
"I think I like the way you see."
We rambled back down the hill into the village for dinner at Marina Piccola. Claudia spoke to the man at the door and we were seated at a table on the terrace with a free view of the sea.
I started to order us dinner, and tripped over the words in an earnest attempt to impress my companion. She suffered my mangling of the language for a few minutes, but soon poked me in a chummy way and giggled. I deferred to Claudia's superior Italian and she rattled off our orders. We started with some shavings of raw beef soaked in olive oil and lemon followed by trenette al pesto and lingered over some seafood stew in a wine sauce with herbs.
"How long has it been since you've been home?"
"Two years? Two and a half years. When I was a girl I couldn't imagine living away from my mother, my father. But now ... it's been such a long time. So many things at home must have changed."
As we talked, a black patch of clouds scrambled over the mountain. While the shadow lingered over us, a break in the clouds some two or three miles off formed a halo of light in the ocean.
"Close your eyes, John. Now imagine a colour. Not the word, but the colour itself. Watch it closely. It's changing. What colour is it now, John?
"Now think of a shape the colour of aquamarine. Reach out and touch it. How does it feel? Does it have edges or is it smooth?"
"Smooth. What is this we're doing?"
"A game I used to play with my brother in the garden when we were children. Hold the shape to the light and see all the colours coming through. Now let the object go. Let it go and find another piece. Something different, but complimentary ... what is different about the new piece?"
"The shape. It has edges."
She traced a line from my knuckle to the tip of my index finger. "Run your finger along the edges. Now, open your eyes."
Claudia's fluid movements conveyed a sense of perpetual motion and curiosity. She had this odd habit of meeting my gaze, smiling, and then glancing off to the side, down and away, as if to collect her thoughts.
"That's what I see, what I feel, when I pick beads, jewels, marbles. Shapes and colours. Each piece on its own and then how to connect them one to the next."
We hovered over a few final shots of lemon-scented liqueur in advance of total darkness. I must have been staring out at the sea quite intently since she stopped mid-sentence and said, "what do you see?"
"I see all the gradations of colour from aquamarine to ebony to a lustrous white far out at sea."
"Why aren't you looking at me?"
"How about part truth, part shameless flattery? I'm hoping that you'll share my gaze and see the beauty of the moment."
"You see so much, so much I that I think I miss. Do you want to photograph me?"
"Maybe, but not now."
"Oh, why not now? Am I not ..."
"Claudia you're incandescent. You glow. But I just want to be; here and now with you. I'll paint a word-picture if you ask me again later ..."
We remained still and took a final sip of our liqueur. As dew collected on the sides of Claudia's drink, her fingers slid through the drops in little circles. I leaned over, took her hand in mine, dipped her index finger into the last of my drink, and licked off the final taste of lemon.
With a faintly amused, faintly tipsy smile, she started to speak, but settled for a teasing shake of the head.
"Let's take a walk," I suggested.
Twisting the linen of my shirtsleeve up into a knot in her palm, Claudia led me through the tunnel, up the stairs, and along the Via dell Amore.
"'Insieme, siamo luminosi," she whispered.
We kissed and it seemed as though the entirety of my world was contained in that inviting roll of her tongue against mine. I had not yet seen this place in the light, but I knew it must be beautiful.
"Love is most nearly itself
Where here and now cease to matter" - TS Eliot