[ 23:08 saturday 28 july – piano imperatore, abruzzo, italy ]
i’m sitting on a limestone crag at the edge of a vast grass-covered plain, one and a half thousand metres up in the appenine mountains. the plain is ringed with mountains reaching up to three thousand metres, some forested on the lower slopes and some barren rock. everything is on a massive scale.
christian and i reached the plain just before sunset, after a tough trek through five miles of forested gorge rising nine hundred metres along its length. christian’s asleep now in our tent atop a flattened hillock below my current vantage point. the wide landscape is bathed in pale light from the not-quite-full moon. dogs barking at a shepherd’s hut the other side of the plain echo among
the mountains, reverberating sometimes beyond a second.
every sunday for the past four weeks i’ve cycled to waterloo station in london, slung my bike on the train to norbiton and visited my step-granny mary in kingston hospital. she was admitted in june with intestinal problems. i found her with one tube going into her wrist, another in her nose and an oxygen mask to help her breathe. her first comment to me expressed mortification that her “old ladies’ feathers” hadn’t been trimmed.
when i got up this morning i learned that mary died in the day’s first hour. a week on monday would have been her ninety-first birthday. she celebrated her ninetieth last year by going sky-diving, earning her a measure of notoriety in the world’s press. her decline in the last couple of months was sudden.
mary was a magnificent lady, full of spirit and laughter. she and my grandfather were married in 1985, shortly after my grandmother’s death. their twelve years together were ludicrously happy.
my initial visits to the hospital were chatty. i took flowers and a big photograph of a labrador puppy to tape over the television screen beside her bed. she wasn’t afraid of death and was curious about what, if anything, might come afterwards.
last sunday mary was a lot weaker and less responsive than previous visits. her speech was barely audible and much of the time i was there her eyes remained closed.
previously i’d asked if she’d like me to read her anything. her eyes had lit up and she’d asked for dickens’ “the old curiosity shop”, adding it was her favourite. so i brought a copy with me, rested it on the pillow beside her head and started reading softly just a few inches from her ear.
i couldn’t tell whether she was following the story or not but it wasn’t important. in two bursts i completed the first chapter. at some level i understood it was the last time i’d be with her. i cried more than i wanted to and lingered when it was time for me to go.
this afternoon in penne i bought a funerary candle and added it to my rucksack’s contents. now i’ve come to sit vigil for mary in this beautiful place. the candle is burning on a rock just in front of me. through tonight it will be visible for miles around, a point of light in the vastness of the plain.
: c :