Low life

Italy, in seven hours and five trains

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

The train standing at platform 1A had no air-conditioning and the heat was stupefying. Latecomers pressing into the carriage reacted to it as to a slap in the face. Those with nothing better to hand fanned themselves with their tickets.

The lady seated opposite me mistook my theatrical languor for conviviality. ‘I’ve been in Florence for a week and I’ve never been so hot in my life,’ she said. ‘But I’ve had such a wonderful time in school here learning Italian. Such a beautiful language. You sort of roll it around in your mouth as if you are tasting something delicious, like olive oil or something. And I made such good progress! I’m sure that if I’d done another week I would be fluent almost.’ A man attempting to insert a suitcase into the luggage rack above us interrupted her to gently ask: ‘Mi scusi. È la tua borsa?’ ‘What?’ she said, startled and affronted to be addressed without warning in a foreign language.

At Pisa I had six minutes to find and board the train to La Spezia. It was the tightest connection of four between Florence and Nice. Five minutes it took me to extricate myself from the carriage and one to sprint to platform 7 and fling myself on the train as the doors closed. This train was wonderfully cold and surprisingly luxurious.

Now I was sitting opposite a raven-haired Italian woman in her mid-forties shouting into one of her two mobile phones. She had conjured her interlocutor so vividly in her imagination it was as though he or she were physically present in front of her and she augmented her speech with exquisitely expressive facial and body language. My theory that she was in a cold fury was refuted when she suddenly laughed indulgently and followed it up with an interlude of fond chuckling.

I was resigned to her talking all the way to La Spezia — about an hour — when she ended the conversation abruptly and turned her attention to the passing scenery, which was now mountainous. Then the other phone rang. After squinting at the screen she answered it and settled in for another long conversation. To this new interlocutor she spoke softly and lovingly with overtones of eroticism. This called for a downgrade of my estimate of her relationship with the previous caller from lover to slight acquaintance.

At La Spezia steep mountains reared up on every side and one wondered how our train had managed to squeeze through them. The ancient Genoa-bound train waiting for us there had no air-conditioning. But the scenery easily made up for this. An amazingly long and deafening tunnel was the prelude to emerging suddenly and surprisingly next to the glittering sea, then a succession of pretty coves and bougainvillea-covered stations — Riomaggiore, Monterosso, Chiavari, Rapallo — at which cheery passengers in Sunday swimsuits flip-flopped on and off. When I had said I was leaving Italy by five successive trains, taking seven hours, I was laughed at. But on a summer Sunday afternoon with a window seat on a stopping train hugging the Ligurian sea, two hard-boiled eggs left, and a comfortable 20 minutes between trains at Genoa, time now mattered hardly at all.

Between Genoa and the border station of Ventimiglia, I was seated with three young Russian chaps who passed the time scanning the beaches for topless women or filming each other looking wistfully out of the window. At Ventimiglia all trains going west into France were temporarily suspended owing to asylum seekers on the line. Outstanding among these trains was the once-a-week Russian leviathan bound for Moscow via Nice. I bought a milky coffee at the café opposite the station. ‘Buona sera,’ I said to the waiter. ‘Ciao,’ he said, slightly hostile. At the bottle shop next door, I bought a litre of gin. ‘Ciao,’ I said to the checkout woman. ‘Buona sera,’ she said, slightly hostile in exactly the same way.

At Nice-Ville I took a bus to the airport and flew to Bristol. From my seat on the plane to a seat on the shuttle bus to Bristol Temple Meads railway station was 12 minutes. I caught the last train to Totnes and from there a taxi. Because it was a Sunday the taxi fare cost more than the train from Florence and the flight from Nice to Bristol combined.

The house was in darkness. I found the front key in its usual hiding place and let myself in. The spirit of the house was altered; there was only an absence. In the kitchen I looked at the calendar for some reason. It was still showing the page for May. Mum’s handwriting was on it: three birthdays to remember and a hair appointment. I turned over to June. Four more birthday reminders. She was big on remembering people’s birthdays was Mum. July — so sad — was blank.

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