CREATIVE Robert Minhinnick

NWR Issue 110

Sicilian Driftwood

For me he’ll always be the old man. I found this in one of those Moleskine notebooks, part of that hoard he left. That almighty mess. We knew he was writing everything down but this is with dates and locations, as if he thought someone might read it. Or care about that indecipherable life he led.

You’ve seen some of his archive but new things keep turning up in unexpected places. Loose pages ripped from exercise books, scrawls on the backs of other people’s letters. Some of you boys wiped your shitty arses with those pages and I’m still angry about that. But you know the stuff, how he arrived in Albania or got on a bus from Baghdad. Yes, why couldn’t he have written a blog like everybody else?

Yet maybe his life is all too clear. Seems his condition was worse than we thought. Periods of delirium when the malaria came back, not to mention that incident he boasted about. This has a title too, ‘The Satyr’, and here’s what I copied from the Moleskine. Honest, word for word.

‘The Satyr’

They were in a favoured spot a few miles off the Tunisian coast. When they pulled up the net there was a leg in it. Along with the sardines and the ancho- vies there was a statue’s leg.

On every expedition afterwards they thought maybe this time we’ll get the whole body. And you know? They did. A year later this green creature was hauled over the side. The leg belonged to the body and the body to the leg. The crew of the Fat Captain out of western Sicily had been proved right. But that’s the Tunisian coast for you. Hidden wonders, and that statue as Greek as it gets.

The five of us had felt like swifts, rising. That town was full of swifts but even when we reached the top and looked around we still didn’t know where the voice was coming from. Until someone glanced up. And there she was, a young woman, beckoning.

Woo hoo! Here, here! she was calling. So we climbed three flights and she said, Please, come and look at this. I show all passing visitors.

This woman took us outside onto a balcony and we crowded in. The ones at the back couldn’t understand but those in front realised straightaway what she wanted us to see.

It was the view. The frightening panorama from that apartment. The town is at a difficult altitude already but those buildings, tall themselves, had been constructed on the very summit. Only one of the churches stood above it. And so we looked straight out toward Etna.

Giddying, I tell you. Made me sick, it was so sudden. That was the top of the world and we were gazing across slopes of black lava at smoke from the volcano and that cloud that always seems to hang there. A double warning, I thought, that smoke, that cloud. But everyone seemed to take it as normal. Just like history, they ignored the dangers.
I think she was Romanian. Gave us all an almond biscuit, a thimble of coffee, and said in English, So what do you think?

Marvellous, we said. Because she was clearly proud. This was her apart- ment and she was entertaining spur of the moment guests. Her spur, her moment. She said every morning she and her daughter ate breakfast on that balcony.
I had to step away. Even when I braved a second look I needed to grasp the rail. The world I knew had vanished so there was nothing under my feet.

Maybe it’s a sign of ageing but everything started to swim around me.

Later in the square people asked us where we were staying. We waited for one another to speak before it dawned that we didn’t know the house’s name.

With Beppe, we said. That’s where. You must know Beppe. But everyone we met in that square seemed to be called Beppe. It was St Anthony’s Day and the women were preparing a feast. The men were already outside, the old men in the square at their tables, men who looked like they had been sitting there for a thousand years.

Working in the square was a child. Ned, they called him, but I’m not sure if that was his name. He talked to us in English but said he spoke three languages, Italian, French, Arabic, and we believed him. So maybe that’s four. When you’re mono like I am it gets embarrassing. Too late now I thought, I’m plain stupid. Another form of vertigo.

This diary tells me exactly a year ago I became acquainted with the land- scape of my own brain. Those photographs of a CT scan could have been a black walnut. My consultant pointed out two white patches, tracing them with a biro. He called them lesions.

How’s the memory? he asked.

I had to think before I answered.

Fine, I replied. And stared him down. Christ, even in that conversation I was trying to bluff. As if he hadn’t been holding all the cards....

Look, he said, You’re of a certain age. Anyone scanned is going to show something. I know I would. But these indicate damage and each lesion is the evidence.

To me the scars looked like radioactive burns. Something uranium might leave on the skin, so powerful it had seared straight in. But that’s a death sentence….

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‘Sicilian Driftwood’ is from a prose collection about the consequences of climate change and migration in the near future. Robert Minhinnick’s novel, Limestone Man, reviewed at newwelshreview.com on 1 October, was published in 2015 by Seren. Robert will be reading this story at a benefit, ‘Sicilian Driftwood: Readings for Refugees’, organised by Sustainable Wales, on Friday, December 11, at 8pm in the Green Room, 5, James St., Porthcawl CF36 3BG, entrance £3, copies of this magazine on sale.


       


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