I’ve taken myself on a tour. Visiting the towns and cafés we blustered into that first summer. Twenty years behind of course – but we’re here, in the distance, younger, more foolish. Speaking for myself, more open and less foolish might be a better description. I realise now I can’t blindly assume that age makes me wiser. With that in mind I’ve been asking my younger self some questions, taking his advice where possible. This is the reason I’m writing this letter.
I started the tour in San Remo. Could’ve timed it to the day but the 23-year-old me said chill out, stop consulting the calendar and put more effort into the swagger. So that’s what I did. Arrived mid-May, which is close enough, and threw the shoulders from side to side all the way to La Pignese. My wallet’s become wide enough to cover the cost. Which took some of the sparkle off the menu.
I watched us, 20 years away on the middle table. Me feeling on show and out of place, you exuding enough confidence for the both of us. Alert and mindful you told me you weren’t hungry and ordered a starter and some water. I remember how scuffed my Converse were in comparison to the crisp white tablecloth. I tried to curl my feet up like hoofs and hide them beneath the seat.
You picked at your food. The boredom that haunted you had begun to set in. With calamari skewered on the end of your fork, you said, “Toss this let’s hit the beach and eat pizza.” Even then, that young, a voice inside me told me to take care because I’d always be playing catch up.
I wanted desperately to impress you. The pizza wasn’t finished, and I was still hungry when I threw my clothes off and ran into the water naked as a light bulb. The sea was dark. You kept me waiting long enough for me to wonder. And when you eventually stood up to unbutton your shorts my heart hammered so hard it could’ve driven nails into concrete. I’ve been skinny dipping in many places since then. It’s a curse, and a delight, to compare every one to the first time.
Remember the bus into the mountains? So many turns, always climbing, and the old woman who wouldn’t take her eyes off us – I think, much like I’m doing right now, she was staring across a distance into the past. She surprised me when she asked, in broken English, where I was from. I puffed out my chest and said, “Scotland.” She closed an eye and pointed a thin finger. “Scottish, hmm, you have a snake in your pocket.” I knew she said it because the Scots have a reputation for being thrifty. Being born in Belgium, you were totally unaware of that information. You laughed so much you got travelsick and had to sit at the front to focus on the road. The old woman got off the bus carrying a bag of lemons. There wasn’t a house in sight. She stood still and waved after us until we turned the next bend and she was gone.
Bajardo hasn’t changed one bit. Population still less than 300 souls. Workmen still drinking wine on their breaks. The chapel on the hill still has no roof. We were far from religious but we prayed in our own way. Stuck on our Discmans, listened to separate songs. Had a silent disco. You couldn’t dance. Never seen someone as stecky. But you didn’t care. And Mia, that’s where all of your beauty came from.
Rome! We got off the metro at the wrong stop and there was the Colosseum, at night, lit up, smaller than I’d imagined but more real for it. You crossed the street to lay your forehead against it and I felt something then. Like there was someone thousands of years ago leaning against that exact part of the wall, watching the world go by. I felt maybe the two of you were connected, two dots at the opposite ends of the same piece of paper – that the paper just needed folding over.
I had a similar feeling when your daughter surprised me with her visit – something folding over. What a gift, Mia, to send your daughter all that way, after so many years, to tell me how much our summer meant to you. How strange though, to balance that magic against the news of your passing. But, of course, that was the point. Isobel has your chin, and your mouth, but more laughter around the eyes. I was flattered you thought she should meet me, and heartened to hear I was part of the lesson you were teaching her – that the success of a relationship isn’t always to be found in how long it lasts. We, for instance, will forever be in Italy; our bodies will be bright, supple enough to weave between crowds without thinking of what’s in front and what’s behind. You’ll hide your naivety behind that raised eyebrow, and I’ll make you laugh by holding mine in front of me like a lamp.
I’m finishing the tour beside the cliffs and beaches of Sorrento. That sharp edge, and the ocean, and a large pizza, and a cold glass of beer, and some sadness, but sadness can have something lovely flowering inside it. You refused anger when I decided not to follow you to Belgium. I remember your two arms in the air and that wide smile. But I wonder. Did some part of you know my time with Isobel would give me a glimpse of something else? Another me somewhere on the same piece of paper that, like this letter, simply needs folding over.
Devised by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in partnership with Edinburgh City of Literature, Message from the Skies sees texts by six leading writers – William Dalrymple, Chitra Ramaswamy, Louise Welsh, Kapka Kassabova, Stef Smith Billy Letford, projected on to some of the capital’s landmark buildings during the first month of 2019. This year’s celebration of the written word features six specially commissioned “love letters to Europe” in which the writers express their feelings at this time of political uncertainty. Supported by Creative Scotland through the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo fund, these literary illuminations will continue until Burns Night on 25 January. For more information, visit www.edinburghshogmanay.com