A short story by Cara Blackwell
It was a fresh-washed sky, and the city lay tumbled out beneath it. Buildings of yellow, brown and terracotta jostled one another for space, their pointed elbows out. They parted only with reluctance, stepping back from handkerchief squares and the one wide boulevard that swept towards the sea. The buildings looked like they had always been there, pushed up through the earth by an unseen evolutionary hand, like the hills and folds of the Cagliari landscape.
The day was early and Elisabeth was standing alone at the edge of the terrace, the view unfolded at her feet. Overhead, church bells chimed, their echoes hanging in the air like ghosts. At the final chime, she returned to her table, sinking heavily into the chair. She had hoped for forgiveness, but the seat to her left was empty. She closed her ears to its mute accusations, closed her eyes, and tilted her head to the sun.
He should have been here by now, to share the sunrise with me. He would have been here if he’d truly forgiven me.
It was early, but the day was coming to life all around. Somewhere, shutters inched open with an escalation of creaks, like an old man struggling to straighten up, ensuring all about him were conscious of his efforts. There was the wet slap of a mop on honey-coloured paving stones. Dogs padded past. A moped’s whine rose and fell in the distance. Seagulls screamed, freewheeling through the salt-seasoned air. The faint but still-sharp aroma of coffee snaked out from the cafe behind. It was all so familiar.
She was twenty when she first came here, slipping away to Sardinia on her first trip abroad. As she stepped off the boat into a city shrouded in a light mist, she was enchanted by its narrow streets and careless beauty. This wasn’t England, where she had always lived, but somehow it felt like home.
And this spot most of all: a terrace at the centre of the old city, atop the hill rising at its heart. This spot, stumbled across, where time had a different quality. Hours melted, condensed, evaporated, while Elisabeth, chin in hand, watched the sun daub its colours onto the buildings below.
This was where she met Marco. This was where, breathless, she reached out and held his hand for the first time, where they sat and watched the sun rise and fall, where she learned her first Italian words.
“Gabbiani”, she repeated, following his finger to the birds circling overhead.
Certain that Cagliari was where she was meant to be, her fervent promises to stay were hewn from conviction, not hope.
But her promises broke. Matriarchal fury sought her out, and the implacable weight of expectation leaned over the sea to pluck her back, divert her course. Her explanations to Marco drowned in a tidal wave of upturned palms and sharp exclamations. He walked away, straight-backed, yet also broken.
It had taken time for Elisabeth to find her way back to Cagliari, to shake off her bonds and her guilt, forgive herself her weakness and dispatch a letter across the sea.
I’m coming, I’m coming. Let’s begin again.
But the chair next to her was empty. Perhaps not enough time had passed, still, for Marco to forgive her.
“Signora, what can I get you?”
Her reverie disturbed, Elisabeth opened her eyes. A waiter leaned in, expectant.
“Un caffe con latte per favore, il più caldo possibile, grazie.”
The waiter’s eyes widened at her reply. He paused, before straightening up and turning away. Elisabeth knew she didn’t look Italian. Her skin, exposed for a lifetime to a feeble English sun, remained pale. Her eyes were the grey-blue of a storm-whipped sea. The truth of her heritage was buried deep within her. To her late mother and grandmother’s relief, her appearance didn’t betray the dalliance that had led to her birth. Her Anglo-Saxon countenance saved their small community from scandal, saved her mother from accusations of treachery. Elisabeth was raised by the man who should have been her father – who thought he was.
She had thought so too, until the day before her twentieth birthday, the day she discovered the diary. Inside a small, cardboard box placed far back on a high shelf in the summerhouse: a non-descript brown-covered book, held together with twine. She untied the string, started to read at the place where the pages sprang open. She didn’t realise it belonged to her mother until it was too late.
When she returned to the house, she didn’t say a word about what she had learned. But the knowledge unbound her feet, freed something within her. Two months later, she left for Sardinia.
And it was there, in the island’s capital, that she discovered Marco: one-time prisoner-of-war, one-time labourer on her parents’ farm. Her father.
It’s not too late.
Elisabeth shook her head as if trying to dislodge the thought.
It was too late: too late to rebuild the connection, too late to start afresh. And he was old now, perhaps too old to remember.
And then, a hunched old man in a black suit shuffled round the corner, his ninety years bent heavy over his walking stick. He looked up, saw Elisabeth, and stopped. She held her breath.
Marco raised a finger and pointed to the seagulls circling overhead.
Fifty years evaporated. And Elisabeth smiled.
Cara Blackwell lives in Bristol and writes short fiction and poetry. She studied creative writing with the Open University.