A deep wrinkle on a loving face

I have few photos of Catania, so instead, still Sicily, here’s an older photo of Palermo.
Palermo, December 2016

The festival lights are like lacework. Made of pieces of wood, carved up into shapes, painted white and decorated with lightbulbs, they are the frilly collar holding the street together.

These are streets beaten by the sun, splintering apart. Bathed with a sea breeze, the metal work rusts and so, on the skewed doors, hinges either don’t quite close or don’t quite open. Yet the frame of lights gives these streets an ethereal dignity, an otherworldliness – people lean over balconies staring into a distant, undefinable space rather than at mobile phones. As shabby as they might be, the lights offer a tactile, homely, deep wrinkle on a loving face.

We pass under them when we walk down to the harbour, look up and stare. I want to run my fingers over their geometries, instead I step through their stencil of light.

As we passed the cafés and restaurants on the sea front, I tell JT how I made lights like these once. He questions my choice of verb. No, I made them. I carved the wood I sanded it down, I painted it white, and I went with the carpenter, with whom I worked, to a warehouse that had been filled with pallets and wooden boxes and stacks and stacks of lace like street decorations. It was December, the season was Christmas. The lightbulbs were being checked, the warehouse was being emptied and mine were just a few large wooden stars and a bundle of white letters ready to be composed into words, destined to light a narrow street with invitation.

I show JT photos; he thinks I’m a teenager. I was twenty-five when I did carpentry in a valley in Sicily where the dogs always barked and the people yelled at each other in their thick dialects, hands exclaiming. I was twenty-five and hid from the noise with a woman who has since become one of my best friends. I was twenty-five and my life was splintering apart.

Blood oozes from my hand. There are three rock slashes across my palm. Flesh torn underwater. The lick of salty sea. I swim across to JT, who’s half perched on a rock that juts out, a sharp break in the waves. I swim, with my hands clasped together in prayer. Blood mixes with salty water and runs down my wrist, drips into the Mediterranean. A shoal of fish gathers at my feet, nibbles at my toes. I’m being consumed by the ocean. JT gives me his spot, and I perch on the rock, I show him my wounds, the three gently curved slashes like cuts from tiger claws. I hold my palm to the sun because I don’t want to leave the sea.

Why is it that the sound of water is so relaxing. JT tells me that people who live by big bodies of water live more relaxed lives. Maybe conversation to the rhythm of the waves is slower. Maybe it’s the beat of the surf stroking the shore, or the deep heave of weight, crashing forward then back, forward then back, slowing you down.

When I’m not injuring myself, tearing my palms on underwater rocks, I’m reading Deborah Levy’s Real Estate. She’s decided, at the age of fifty-nine, that it’s time to have her perfect house. In the beginning, this hypothetical house had a hypothetical fountain. I’m halfway through the book, and now she’s decided that a house by a river would be a better idea. I agree; the Parents live by a river. A riverbank is a good space to think, a good space to pause and reflect, and space is essential for writing. I seek that unagitated space. Space is on my mind, probably because I’m living out of a suitcase, sharing my working space with the kitchen.

Out of the water, JT and I wander through the glass-strewn streets, stepping around broken bottles, discussing the value of having a separated space for work. We’re planning the house of our dreams. Over coffee, I talk about sheds. Again, it’s Levy’s fault because this personal non-fiction trilogy she’s written is all about space, it’s about ownership of space, spaces where we feel we have agency and voice. Spaces to write.

In a way, The Cost of Living, the second in the trilogy, felt like a personal take on Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own. It’s a book about finding a safe space in the after her life splintered apart in divorce. A place for her to live with her daughters, another place for her to write: a shed. I’d like a shed with windows. I like to write and see the sky.

JT and I happen upon a restaurant. A man tends a roaring fire, sweat drips from the dents in his forehead. It’s thirty-something degrees outside. I sweat in the shade. JT can’t believe how much I sweat. The sweat mingles with the blood of my palm, and the oily suncream. I notice another cut on my thumb, like a fine paper cut. This invisible mark hurts more than the rest. My toe is bleeding too. There’s blood on my white towel. Yet there are mussels in my pasta and wine in my glass and I’m thinking about my grandfather, like me, he likes sunshine. I’m thinking of his chuckle the last time I invaded his space with an unexpected hug.

Sunshine, good food, and the sea. By the time I finish writing this post, I’ve finished Levy’s trilogy. A trilogy which finishes by the sea, in a spacious house in sunny Greece, with her squeezing oranges.

Simpler than the lights here in the small towns on the outskirts of Catania, but these ones had my fingerprints all over them.
Palermo, December 2016