This is a first draft of something I wrote last year for a creative writing class run by the wonderful people at Wind & Bones. It may appear at some point in a more refined form.
In those days you couldn’t simply move house. You ‘marched out’ instead, briefly halting at the threshold to salute at walls that looked suddenly like strangers, pale with fresh, regulation-white paint. Say farewell to the furnishings, identical to the neighbours’ and the neighbours’ neighbours’. Soon another family would sit at the same brown table, on the same brown chairs, in the same lethargic state of in-betweenness. Brown was the dogma of the ‘80s in military quarters like these. We measured time in nicotine stains, exposed by dusty picture frames retired into boxes.
And so it went, every one to three years – never longer – my family and I marched in and out of houses, in and out of foreign lands. Friends were impermanent fixtures, fleetingly half-known and as quickly half-forgotten, often entirely. Many places, too, have eroded from my memories. Others have stuck with a weight that far exceeds the amount of time I spent there. Have you ever been to Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance? My middle name is David, and at the start of this particular story I am almost five years old.
The Paris ring road in ’84 was no place to be if you couldn’t read French. The signage was inscrutable and almost everything felt alien and addled, my parents driving for the first time on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. On top of the car, strapped to the roof rack, was a large, white catamaran my stepfather had recently acquired with all the bravado of a man about to move to the Mediterranean. The boat was in the beachcat style, with a sort of trampoline that coupled the two fibreglass hulls where the lashing rain would pool. I watched it pour like a river down the rear window each time we put on some speed.
Besides me, my parents and the boat above us, our vehicle carried also my two sisters, some suitcases of clothes and those few possessions too highly prized to hand over to the movers. Our destination was Naples, Italy, then the poorest and most problematic city in the country, where the next phase of our lives would take shape. I had little idea of what an Italy was at the time – only that it was far away, had a lot of beaches and looked kind of like a boot – but the germ of that idea was exciting and not wholly unfamiliar. It had not yet been a year since we’d moved back to England from Cyprus and the sea was calling us home.
It’s roughly twelve hundred miles from the port of Calais to Naples – further if you factor in missed exits and other unforced errors – and our itinerary allowed for just two days of driving. The first night we spent in a no-frills hotel, somewhere in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, setting off in the morning to Chamonix where we would take the toll road that tunnels in an inverted V deep beneath Mont Blanc. Since the signing of the Schengen Agreement was still some months in the future, crossing the internal borders of Europe often meant lengthy spells of waiting while paperwork was checked and stamped.
I don’t know at which point my parents realised it would be impossible to make it all the way to Naples at a decent hour, but it was decided we would have to make an extra stop along the way. It must have still been light enough on reaching Bologna to cross the mountains into Tuscany, so we pushed on through the Apennines as the lush spring fields turned gold in the sunset. Night was falling or had already fallen when we came into Florence, found a close-at-hand hotel and checked out of the car, bleary-eyed and hungry.
This is not the part of the story where I tell you that I fell in love with Florence from that day forward. Truth is, I’ve never even seen St. Mary of the Flower with its splendid façade. I have never walked Ponte Vecchio, or in Boboli Gardens, or marvelled at the original David at the Accademia. I remember Florence not because of these great treasures but because I hold a deep, abiding, unflattering grudge.
It was a Saturday, the day we woke up in Florence, the day we would eventually reach our new hometown. It was also my birthday and I was excited to get back on the road for the last leg of the journey. I knew that there were gifts for me in the car with the luggage, not only from my parents but from my grandparents, aunts and uncles too. It was a good day to be five, I thought, but my mother’s face said otherwise as she opened up the back of the car and did a panic-stricken double take. Everything was gone! There were no clothes, no jewellery, and – worst of all, to me – no presents. The thieves had seen us coming and made off with the lot; they had even tried to cut down the boat but ran off before they finished the job.
My parents got little sympathy or help from the Florentine police and were in a black mood for the rest of the day. I remember feeling grief, but kept quiet in the back seat, knowing that my loss would be short-lived and that something bigger was in motion. A new life, new school, new friends. I had so longed to be five.