As rain starts to fall on the town of Portovenere, the scene is set for a suspense film.
The town is walled in by ancient battlements, keeping watch over port, streets and tourist-weary natives. Once passed the gates, tall houses tower and stairways loom at every turn. A porcelain-white cat sits ever patient, not a turn of the head as we pass by. Nor do we acknowledge its presence with more than a word; my left wrist bears the trace of its now-hidden claws – I’ve learnt my lesson. The air weighs down on us as we climb step after step. Only fallen flowers catch the eye as we walk. Laundry hangs white above our heads, out of prying eyes’ reach. A little bowl left out for pigeons is the only reminder of an old mumbling woman we saw the day before, out pruning her plants. In a plea to lessen its burden, the sky finally releases a few drops of rain. Far in the distance, a dull sound echoes.
(As I sit to write, the day’s carillon rings out its irregular tune: sinister, kitsch, jarred and devoid of melody, it uselessly announces the fourth hour after noon. Inside the house it is answered by an exasperated groan).
At first the rumbling sound resembles the one heard non-stop as motorised boats cross the Golfo. From dawn till dusk they send dull vibrations into the air, amplified as they travel from island to mainland and back again. Only this time the sound is more insistent, getting closer, covering up the aria of an opera seeping through a first-floor window in the silent, deserted street. For a moment, the woman and the helicopter fight for their voices to be heard until we turn a corner and they both accept defeat. More stairs to be climbed, more “buon giorno”s left unanswered or perhaps unheard. Flowers are still in bloom in this summer afternoon that is yet spring. Cacti point the way and, at the turn of a corner, my eyes level with the view offered at last: the bay, the sea and the island we’ve just come from. As I turn back where we are heading, my mind floats to the castle, up there. The image, fresh in mind, of faded photographs showing two old friends dressed against the wind, walking the old path of polished slabs, pointing at something in the distance, a long time ago. My mind then goes back to a face I’ve only now seen for the first time: that of my grand-mother, my mother’s mother. Mum in who’s face I now recognise the past they maddeningly fight over. I climb the final steps, pass the wall in pink bloom and enter our shelter, just in time. As the rain starts to fall in earnest, the scene is finally set: white cat, bodiless opera voice, a labyrinth of stairs, helicopter swooping low and a family tragedy waiting to be told…