We were celebrating in a restaurant in the Tuscan hills. Which restaurant I cannot tell you. Which hills I cannot tell you. I cannot tell you what we talked about or the names of most of the other guests. I can tell you only that that it was 2011 and we were there to mark the Golden Wedding anniversary of my uncle and his wife — my closest Italian relatives; that we arrived, as always, in convoy — a crazy cavalcade of cars full of cousins, which stopped and started along the route, the cousins pouring out of their vehicles to pick up a cake or another cousin, or to argue about directions; and that looking at the surrounding landscape through the February rain was like looking at it through tears: the greens and beiges and terracottas bleeding into one another, as the scent of pine needles rose from the damp soil.
This sense of dislocation is a constant, and came to me as a bequest. I am a ghost in Tuscany. I wander winding streets on padded feet, insubstantial as air. I am beloved, yes, but only because of what I represent. Weeping strangers throw their arms around me; peer at, and through, my face as if it were a window onto their youth.
Over half a century, I have explored every inch of Lucca, the city in which my cousins live. I have walked round and round its Renaissance walls, marking out the perimeters of my past, guarding it like a shadowy sentinel. But I long ago accepted that however hard I tried to impose myself on the place, I would always be an imprint; a revenant; an echo of some half-forgotten tragedy. I would always be my father’s daughter.
He was called Enrico, my father. He died when I was 10. Like many other gallus young Lucchese men, he moved to Largs to serve as a waiter for the Castlevecchi family in 1961. There is an out of focus photograph of him shortly after he arrived, down on his hunkers on a flooded jetty, his wiry hair wet with sea spray.
Other photos show him behind a bar, his arm casually slung round the shoulder of his best friend, or posing with a guitar he couldn’t play. In a perfect 60s' movie still, he and my mother sit — her, sultry, with long, dark hair; him, a cigarette dangling from nicotine-stained fingers — in some dimly-lit Glasgow flat.
The journey to Largs was supposed to be the start of a great adventure, a stop-off on the way to other places: Jersey, then Canada. The friend he emigrated with made it to the New World. But one day my mother, a student teacher, wandered into the diner where he was working. He wrote her a love note on a paper napkin, and that was that. He stayed. They married. I was born in August 1967, my brother 15 months later.
We lived an ordinarily happy life. My father worked long hours, gambled a bit and built a beautiful replica of the USS Bonhomme Richard in the shed. I watched him plane the timber and then sand it, as the floor filled up with sawdust. He taught me the names of the different woods and let me touch them. Boxwood was hard, and good for carving the tiny cannons that poked through the portholes. Balsa was light and flexible; long strips were bent to form the hull. Before the ship, he made me a doll’s house, with wallpaper and electric lights and an attic bedroom hidden in the roof. And after the ship, an ebony bracelet - a smooth circle of black that spun on my wrist. Then, one bright winter afternoon, he suffered a brain aneurysm. His body lay cold in the garden until the paramedics took him away.
For a while, the three of us drifted, finding a listless rhythm in the passing of the days, weeks and months. My mum pawned what little jewellery she had, got a job in a boutique and then went back to primary school teaching. We survived, then thrived, as people do.
In Italy, however, his family’s loss came with added abandonment. His elder brother and younger sister had always believed his decision to leave Lucca had caused the premature death of their own father; and now here he was — deserting again — with no hope, this time, of a return. They couldn’t afford to fly over for the funeral, and so there was no way for them to process their grief. It was complicated. I get that, even as I resent what happened as a consequence.
At the Golden Wedding party, the last of the plates had been cleared away. Tiny guests were scattered across the room like confetti, asleep on chairs and hiding under tables. In a corner of the room, a turntable had been set up and people were singing and dancing. One of the cousins pulled me from my seat and the desire to belong was as overpowering as it was pointless. A familiar shame washed over me. Please, make me visible. Please, make me invisible. I wanted to cry or to walk out. Instead, I followed him to the front and joined in as best I could, singing snatches of a song I guess we learned when we were children.
January 8, 1978.
Slap, slap, slap. The sound of my feet hitting the pavement as I run to fetch the priest. I look down and see I am still wearing my Christmas slippers. They have split at the top. A spasm of panic; and then — a reprieve! — the realisation that nobody is going to care.
The priest is not at home. The housekeeper tells me to go to the church. I fling myself into the porch, a skinny child on a desperate mission. A woman is standing with a baby draped in a long white shawl. I tell the priest my dad is sick. He puts the Baptism on hold, and comes to the house to administer the last rites.
A birth, a death. How that neat symbolism would satisfy my literary sensibilities when, in affected adolescence, I tried to pull a narrative thread out of a tangle of night terrors. But it is a tricky thing to reset memories once you have tampered with them. Each time you summon one up, it is tamed, reframed; and each time it is reframed, it is stripped of some of its authenticity. So what else do I truly remember? Only fragments. The ambulance in the street; the cocked heads of passers-by; watching, with detached curiosity, as tears flowed through my fingers; patting our neighbour’s dog; my mum, back from the hospital, on the doorstep, saying it was “too late”; my dad’s best friend arriving with a stookie on his arm and being allowed to sign it; a wild wind rattling my bedroom window; waking up to find everyone still crying; and the slow dawning realisation that death was not — as I had imagined — a single, terrible event, but a continuum, a state of being, and, for too long, the way my family would be defined.
Three years before my father died, when I was, as I told anyone who would listen, “quasi otto”, we spent a month in Italy: two weeks in Lucca itself and two in Lido Di Camaiore, a seaside resort sandwiched between Viareggio and Pietrasanta on the Versilia coast on the Ligurian Sea.
It was a formative time; a rite of passage. Six years had elapsed since our last trip (which I do not remember) and Enrico Pier Paolo Garavelli was homesick. Probably, too, he wanted his children to know Lucca, and to be known by Lucca; to have some affinity with the streets he roamed in his own wild and unschooled childhood, with the country he talked about with passion and excessive pride. For all his commitment to Scotland, my father retained the exile’s conviction that his homeland was innately superior to anywhere else, a conviction facilitated by the distance he had put between it and its many shortcomings.
With no savings, he sold his business — a bar-restaurant in Ayr — and his impressive stamp collection to pay for the trip, and we set off — the four of us, plus my maternal grandmother with whom we lived — to visit a world already luminous in our imaginations.
I wish I could raise my parasol aloft and guide you through the hazy maze of those weeks. On your right you can see Piazza San Michele, with its cathedral floating in a magic carpet of pigeons; on your left, Torre Guinigi — 45 metres of red brick with ancient oaks sprouting from the top like hair. Stop awhile and gaze on the house where Puccini was born, its green shutters thrown wide to the morning. I have told you, haven’t I, that Puccini was born in Lucca? That’s Giacomo Puccini, composer of La Bohème. Right here. In Lucca.
Now, follow me out of the city gates and up into the hills to Collodi, where Carlo Lorenzini carved Geppetto out of words, and Geppetto carved Pinocchio out of a log. Sit, like the old carpenter, in the belly of the great whale. Touch its white pillared teeth. Stumble, terrified, across the fox and cat, lurking in the trees. Imagine what it would feel like to change from wood into a real boy or girl. Or vice versa.
I wish I could give you a seven-year-old’s eyes so you could watch lizards darting in and out of scrubland; a seven-year-old’s tongue so you could taste the heavy sweetness of succhi di frutta, and roll new words — pesca, pera, albicocca — in your mouth like peach stones; a seven-year-old’s feet so you could feel the shock of cold, stone floors when you have known only soft pile.
I wish you could experience first-hand my tilted wonder at the Leaning Tower, or the transgressive thrill of staring at the rotted corpses of minor saints displayed in glass-covered tombs in the chapels that graced every back street and square.
In Lucca, we stayed at my aunt’s house outside the walls, though its distance from the centre did nothing to stave off the heat, the zanzari (mosquitos) or the claustrophobia. The house was cramped enough without us trying to squeeze ourselves in. A father, a pregnant mother, three children under eight. My aunt was always on her swollen feet cooking — ravioli, pastina in brodo, great platters of lasagne — while her husband worked, but also while her husband played.
On a seat by the window, looking out on the street, sat my nonna, physically present, mentally absent. A solid, yet diminished figure, her vacancy was the result of some brain-related illness (an aneurysm?) suffered while still young, and the reason her own children went largely unmothered. I was wary of my nonna, loath to accept her embraces or sit on her knee. If she pulled me towards her, I would flee outside to play with the stray cats and the cousins.
Sharing a bed with her on the first night of our stay, I woke up and couldn’t find my way out of the room. Disorientated, I battered the walls trying to find the door that would take me back to my parents. She would always evoke dread in me, this vague grandmother, so different from my vital English one, which was my fault, not hers; and something I would never have the chance to remedy.
The second two weeks in Lido Di Camaiore was a riot; endless days on spotless sands. Like much of the Italian coastline, the resort was split up into private beaches, each with its row of bathing huts and its regimental plots consisting of sun-lounger, deckchair and umbrella. Our beach could be distinguished from the others by its Topo Gigio ride which sat out on the promenade where stylish women, with colourful shawls tied round their waists, flaunted their perfect tans.
In the evenings, we would wander through the pineta at Viareggio where old men gathered to play chess or boules, or stroll to the fountains at Lido di Camaiore, my dad pointing out the cafes where he once waited tables in a starched white jacket and black bow tie. Peeking into the Commedia Dell’ Arte-inspired Arlecchino Bar, I conjured masked jesters, garish knaves and pantalooned clowns; they struck impish poses on illicit walls.
And so to the cousins. There are eight of them altogether: Carla, Maria, Dario and (then still in utero) Alessandro, the children of my father’s sister and Georgio, Francesca, Sofia and Marco, the children of his brother. They came and went in batches. All summer, my brother and I observed them, as if we might become more Italian through a process of osmosis. But their uncomplicated grace and extroversion would always lie beyond my reach. Where they emerged from the waves like sea sprites, I clambered out with a bikini bottom full of sand; where they licked their gelatos decorously, I dribbled pistachio green down my chin. They communicated with each other in loud voices and grand gestures. I wasn’t shy, but I was self-conscious.
Not that any of this mattered. We were, I think, a source of fascination to one another, so culturally different and yet with shared genetic markers. Even now, looking at Sofia — my closest cousin in both age and allegiance — is like looking at my reflection in dappled water. We are not, to outsiders, so very much alike, but we possess the same defiant chin and our habit of jutting it out in anger.
With only the language of childhood in common, the 10 of us laughed and tumbled in the sun. We played table football, whirling the red and blue handles with such ferocity the ball would fly off the board and we'd have to look through strangers' feet to find it. We built rival sandcastles, then pelted them with tiny sand cannonballs.
By the time it was over, we had become, not a tight band, but a disparate circus troupe, with a bank of shared experiences and an ineffable, yet enduring bond.
I have a vivid image of my father as we left Italy that year. He was sitting in the front passenger seat of the car on the way to the airport. Perched behind him, I could see his neck turning red. “What’s wrong with dad?” I stage-whispered. “He’s sad because we are going home,” my mum replied.
The next time I visited Tuscany, he was dead and I was on my own. What happened was this. Six months after his funeral, my uncle came to see us in Scotland. He stayed for three or four days, full of loaded conversations, hot tears and a meal at a restaurant where I became obsessed with Mela Stregata (Bewitched Apple), chanting the words over and over like a spell.
It is difficult to express how heightened those days were. We were not a family at the heart of the Italo-Scot community. Even before my father died, we were the odd ones out, the ones who didn’t speak Italian at home; and most of my father’s Italian friends who came to the crematorium melted away after the tea and sandwiches.
We knew no-one else who looked like him — a man so thin he had to take protein supplements to boost his weight. We knew no-one else who spoke like him, no-one else who struggled to make the “th” sound, and so pronounced “thumb” as “tum”; no-one else who pronounced “little” as “leetle”. So the sudden appearance into the vacuum he had left of a man with the same build, gestures, even smell, was bound to cause an emotional backdraft. We were all over him, inhaling his essence; feeding on a hungry, desperate intimacy based on wishful thinking.
In the midst of overwrought pledges of lifelong commitment, it was suggested I spend the rest of the summer in Italy. I am not sure what prompted this idea. Perhaps it was designed to give my mum some space; perhaps it was conceived as a mechanism by which our family ties would be strengthened. Either way, a plan was hatched. I would travel out there with him, and then travel back with my dad’s best friend — he of the stookie — who was already there. I would stay in my uncle’s house, which lay within the city walls, topping and tailing in bed with my cousins.
There was only one rule. My father’s departure from Lucca had — the Italians decreed — killed my nonno. His departure from this world must not be allowed to kill my nonna. The news of his death had not yet been broken to her (and, as it turned out, never would be). I was not to mention it. At all. If she asked me how he was, I was to say he was doing fine.
Writing this down for the first time fills me with indignation. To counter some presentiment, an elderly woman was to be deprived of her chance to mourn her son, believing, until the end, that he couldn’t be bothered with her. And a 10 year-old girl, forlorn and unmoored, was to carry the burden of that decision. I have pondered the insanity of this as if it were a maths problem all my life, turning my head to view it from this angle or that. But the best I can come up with is that grief addles the mind; and that it must have been done with the best of intentions.
I wasn’t concerned about such matters then, though. Then, the prospect of a trip to Italy, an escape from a gloomy house, and more time with my uncle, was something to be grabbed at. I packed my bag before they had the chance to change their minds.
The impracticalities of the trip turned out to be logistical as well as psychological. There we were — an uncle and niece who didn’t, in truth, know each other much beyond “come sei bella” endearments, and the clandestine passing of hard-boiled sweets from a small pouch that always hung from his shoulder. My Italian was barely adequate, his English non-existent.
What an odd couple we must have made, travelling by train to London, him pushing me forward at ticket booths to check reservations or ask for directions, then on through France and northern Italy — my father’s emigration in reverse.
I can chart the time I spent in Tuscany from the news I saw unfolding on the TV, my principal link with the outside world. The first test tube baby, Louise Brown, was born and Pope Paul VI died, which places it in the last two weeks of July and the first in August. If I am right, it would have included my 11th birthday, but of that I have no recollection.
What a strange and lonely time it was. Days spent moping around the house, while my cousins were at school, or in the yard, with the rancid smell of the hens and ducks, or cruising through the town on the back of a scooter, courtesy of some young lad who had been prevailed upon to take me out for a while.
Evenings spent outside with the cousins. Sitting on the walls of the medieval ditch that ran the length of their street, they would ask me to translate pop songs. It was the year of Grease. “But what does it mean, ‘I got chills, they’re multiplying’?” they would persist, frustrated at the limits of my language skills. In exchange, they taught me Lucchese slang - — it’s “mi garba” not “mi piace” — a handful of profanities and the theme tune to Zorro.
Now and then, there were trips to the mountains or to the beach — not the posh, private beaches I remembered from Lido Di Camaiore, but ordinary public beaches without bathing huts where we changed under towels like we did at home.
I had some fun; my Italian improved so much I sometimes dreamed in it. But I was also homesick. My mosquito bites itched. No-one was mean to me, but I felt in the way, and I couldn’t always make sense of what was going on. When we travelled out of town, I had no idea where we were heading or why. But a child who asks questions is an annoyance, and I didn’t want to be an annoyance, so I stopped asking.
Though my uncle's wife was kind, feeding me Nutella on toast and letting me take the gerbil out of its cage to run along the skirting boards, I could sometimes hear arguing from her bedroom late at night and I convinced myself it was about me. “Isn’t it enough I have four children to look after, without you handing me a fifth?” This was all in my head, you understand. I had no idea what they were shouting about.
Other people’s reactions became oppressive. Strangers — extended family members, old friends of my dad — would catch sight of me and wail, so I began to feel like a conduit for other people’s unhappiness. And then there was my nonna. When she was around, I would fold myself into corners so she couldn’t ask me: “How is your dad? Why doesn’t he write? Why doesn’t he visit?” Which was another way of saying: “Why doesn’t he love me any more?”
My father’s best friend extended his stay, so mine dragged on, too, until I craved Scotland, with its late summer drizzle, its tea with milk and its understatement. Of course, once I was finally home, I missed Italy, with its hot sun, its lemon tea and its overstatement. That is how it is for first generation children. The constant push and pull of opposing cultures. The always wanting to go versus the always wanting to stay.
For a long time, though, I couldn’t or wouldn’t return. I knew what was happening with my nonna was wrong, and, with the showy morality of adolescence, refused to play any further part in it. Also, it appeared the Italians had lost interest in me. Sofia and I wrote to each other, swapping titbits about school and boys; but from my uncle there was little. The odd note, a call at Christmas, but no suggestion he was coming to see us. He was busy with work, he was scared of flying, money was tight. I grew conflicted, then bitter. I kept studying the language, but I no longer aspired to be Italian. It’s easier to reject an identity than to allow yourself to be rejected by it.
In 1985, two events happened in quick succession. The first was that my nonna died. I knew this because I received an In Memoriam card, with a prayer and her photograph at the top. I didn’t keep it. The second was that Francesca got married. My brother and I were invited to her wedding, but there was only enough money for one of us to go, and again I was the chosen emissary. So, I packed up my excess baggage — a toxic muddle of loss and longing — and set off once more for my father’s country.
The welcome my cousins gave me was overwhelming. They took me to the Luna Park; showed me off to their friends. We ate out at pizzerias and danced to Madonna’s Into the Groove. We watched the Festa di Santa Croce procession from the balcony of a house along the route and strolled down the Via Fillungo arm in arm. From a distance, I might have passed for Italian.
Up close, however, it was messier. I was a not-so-skinny teenager on a mission. I wanted the gaps in my history filled in. It was the least I deserved. So every time we were alone, I pestered my uncle. I wanted him to tell me more about my dad. What had he looked like? Who had he hung out with? Was he funny? Was he kind? I also wanted to know why my uncle had broken his promises. Why didn’t you write? Why didn’t you visit? Which was another way of saying: “Why don’t you love me any more?”
Nothing he told me satisfied my curiosity. He couldn’t — or wouldn’t — paint the portrait I wanted, full of light and shade. Our encounters grew fractious as we tussled over a dwindling stockpile of memories. Formica cafe counters became frontlines at which I petitioned for tiny details to flesh out a character I knew I had partially invented. I was relentless, but I was defeated. If Enrico had forsaken his homeland back in 1961, his brother was determined to reclaim him now. Whatever traces my dad had left — in these houses, on these streets — were being put beyond my reach.
The wedding day came, and it was everything you would imagine: the bride upstaged by her dress, the groom as wide as the Serchio, his ego borne aloft by an entourage of wisecracking pals. The food was brought out on platters. A succession of exquisite dishes, served up to oohs and aahs from admiring guests. I enjoyed the spectacle, but I understood my place in it. My uncle would never come back to Scotland, now. My role would always be to sit appreciatively at my cousins' tables, theirs to provide the fanfare and the feast. Death by non-reciprocal hospitality.
That year, they saw me off at Pisa Airport, another convoy, stopping off for one last look at the Leaning Tower en route. A ritual cigarette, awkward embraces, then off to the boarding gate for me, the al fresco viewing platform for them.
I fastened my seatbelt, clunk, click, but there was a mechanical fault. The plane was going nowhere. Stewardesses wandered up and down the aisle. The temperature rose. People got cranky. Quarter of an hour passed. Half an hour. My uncle and cousins were still outside, waving. I watched them through the tiny window, sick with love and loathing.
Unaccountably, I began to cry. The woman sitting next to me asked me what was wrong. “That’s my family,” I sobbed, “and there’s no way for me to tell them to go home.” She remained unmoved. “We all have our problems, dear,” she said. Then she reached across me and pulled down the blind, blocking them from sight and mind.
It would be a neat conclusion to report that I never set foot in Lucca again; or, better still, that I went back, in later life, and made my peace with it. But neither would be accurate.
The truth is I have visited sporadically, bringing my husband and then each of my sons, one, two, three. It’s quite the thing to have relatives in one of the most beautiful cities in the world — everyone wants to come along for the ride but visits were — still are — fraught and I have to pace myself. Lucca has never stopped exerting its push-pull-push over me but I have more or less given up trying to belong.
By the time of the Golden Wedding, I was in my mid-40s and beginning to think I ought to lay old ghosts. But how would that work? I still don’t speak Italian well enough to communicate in anything other than platitudes. A seasoned dropper-outer of evening classes, I roll my eyes at the faltering efforts of beginners, while boxsets of CDs promising instant fluency stack up beneath my bed. I realise this failure is wilful. If the impulse to learn a foreign language is a reaching out, then chafing against it must be a closing off. At some point, I built myself a Tower of Babel and forgot to include an exit.
But selective muteness is for the best, is it not? If I could speak, what wounds would I poke? What stagnant waters would I stir? When I replay past scenes in my head, I mostly reprise the parts I perfected long ago: bereaved daughter, abandoned niece, wronged and vengeful teenager. But occasionally I feel brave enough to reverse the roles. Then, I see my uncle, plain as day — no longer a memory thief, just a tired man, short of cash, with his own children, his own troubles, confronted by a bottomless pit of emotional need. Who wouldn’t flee from that?
He is in his eighties now. Perhaps he sees me as a carrion crow picking over the bones of the dead; or a mudlarker trying to scavenge treasure from the foreshore of his pain. If this is so, I do not wish to hear about it.
I also toyed with trying to make a project out of researching my roots. I thought I might travel to Arezzo where my father was born, to Laterina, in the mountains, where he spent several summers. I could research stories of other 60s emigrants, find the fellow traveller he left Italy with, write a book. I got as far as tracking down his best friend, and another man, whose brother had co-owned the bar in Ayr, but so much time had passed and their descriptions of him were filtered through their own lens. In the end, I figured if I had to make do with a projection, it might as well be my own.
Three summers ago, the sons of two of my cousins - my uncle’s grand-children - came to spend a few days with us. It was a pleasure to watch them hang out with my own boys. They went to a nightclub and came back with secrets; harmless, laddish secrets — not the kind that gnaw at your dreams. Theirs is a relationship untrammelled by the past, but all the shallower for it. They exchange short, emoji-laden Facebook messages: a “Forza Azzurri!” when Italy plays, a “Buon Compleanno” on birthdays. It’s a casual, easy-going connection. It will not last another generation.
As for me, I will continue going back to Lucca, no doubt, in pursuit of something so nebulous I cannot name it. I will continue to meet up with my many cousins in the hopes of experiencing, what? An epiphany; a homecoming; a vision of what might have been had so much chaos not been created along the way? The ghosts that refuse to be laid will go on driving circles. Now and again, I will catch a glimpse of a seven-year-old girl scouting for lizards in the sun. Or a lithe young man with wiry hair, lolling against a cafe wall, the tip of his cigarette glowing like a firefly in the dark.
The Anne Brown Essay Prize 2021 is run by Wigtown Book Festival in association with BBC Radio Scotland
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