Suddenly last summer...

A paean...

· musing

Suddenly, under these southern skies, last summer has taken on a new hue, fresh meaning.

As the first clutch of winter closes in on the south, the first frosts whiten the ground, the cockatoos and rosellas battle in great screeches for winter space in the soaring gum trees above, and the burbling frogs are hushed by the cold, I can feel the languid Sirocco of Sicily brushing my cheek.

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A fishing boat, the coast of Sicily


Last summer, before ‘lockdown,’ might have been the last summer on earth.

Last summer I spent on the Camino de Santiago in the high days of August, and then in Sicily, the land of Arabs and Normans and Spaniards, toggling between the rough farm of a friend wedged astride a river between Ragusa and Modena, and a group of nomads in a small paradise called San Vito Lo Capo on a north-western peninsula.

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The meseta on the Camino de Santiago

Last summer was the last for my father on earth.

In hospital I sat by his bed, straightened his pillows, wheeled him to the shower, washed his matchstick frail body, held his parchment hand, stroked his brow, and whispered to him “Dad, if your father had survived, he would have told you that he was proud of the man you became.” Last summer I sat in his room and caught his last rasping breath, wept over his corpse, and sprinkled that vicarious last touch, a handful of earth on his coffin.

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My father's hand, the hospice of St Vincent de Paul

Last summer I lost my closest comrade. Perhaps the last such comrade I’ll have on earth.

She was saturated into my DNA and the murk and mustiness of my subconscious, and like a severed limb the grief refused to staunch. She held all my history in her hands, and when she was gone, my telling went with her. She was nutmeg and chillies, and fried fish and whiskey, and a desert of blooming poppies, and lamplight, and tea, and the thick scent of horses haunch. And yet, like a clock with two hands moving against each other in a perpetual motion of anger, misunderstanding, and frustrated impassioned care, our springs were always set to break.

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Apollonio and friends, San Vito Lo Capo, Sicily

Last summer, the zenith of my work crumbled to dust.

Blunted ambition – what a sweet lesson in bitter disappointment! – set in after the 11th blow and, and, and… enough ‘ands’ to make me swoon with nausea and rail against Fate, hopes for my return to my homeland dashed. In the end, all I could think to do against the stings and arrows was to fight back like a blind man fending a swarm of wasps, and run. I bought a backpack, flew from Australia to Barcelona, took a train to Pamplona, and set out to walk the great pilgrimage route of Europe.

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Last summer I stood on the battlements of a fortress above the town of Castro de Jerez.

The sun was setting across the meseta where the Moorish armies once rode against the Castillian knights. My feet were blistered and bleeding after three weeks walking, but through the mist of pain I could see something else: Nothing. Just me, a naked soul, utterly alone, my chest rising and falling, sweat pooling my shirt to my back, the scent of decay and muscle, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no moment that existed beyond that one.

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Last summer I lived in a stone cottage in the middle of an olive grove.

I was with an old pal in the shadow of the flanks of Monte Monaco, sleeping rough on hessian-strung cots in a single room, playing Punch and Judy with his overstrung violin temperament and finding laughter in the passing of a cloud, and delight in honest Sicilian grain busiate pasta and volcanic soil sprung vegetables. I rested, my feet horribly blistered by the brute trail of the Camino and the speed I kept (unreasonable, calculated to erase my psychic wounds), my Arragonese sun-seared brow and forearms and calves still leather tanned weeks later like the grilled skin of salmon.

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Last summer, I danced on a cracked-lip road for a crowd of Spanish goats.

Sun-flower fields on one flank, vineyards on the other, the grinding pain of my legs and arms and feet almost too much. When I took my first pain-killer, my steps were easier that afternoon, and as the physical pain lifted it dragged my life pain with it, somewhere towards the heavens, off, like a red balloon, not to be seen again. Then a song came easy, a whistle to my lips (that always came easily, no matter where I was), and then a skip and dash to Zorba’s syrtaki, to the curiosity of the cloven-hoofed audience.

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Apollonia, scored by the tentacles of a 'medusa', San Vito Lo Capo

Last summer then, once my walk was done, I was with Apollonia of Calabria.

Fragrant like a Sicilian peach, her body salted and bronzed like an anchovy, the long wet curlicues of her hair splayed across her shoulders like ribbons of black satin, or strokes of a Japanese brush dipped in tar and traced down through the ridges of her back. On a rooftop, curled up on a couch, deep in a bed, tucked into a Fiat 500 with the spent crumbs and smears of cream of cannoli, or laying sprawled where the lip of the sand meets the tongue of the sea, our feet tickled by the lapping of the Mediterranean, our ears hushed by quiet breezes, our arms soothed by the touch and interplay of each other’s fingers, and my stomach stilled by the dark well of her eyes, reflections of light, of liking, and the intimations of a different life gently unfurling.

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Girls, Palermo