Week 16 – Imprisonment, Freedom, a Blonde Knight & a Very Buon Natale
by H D Thompson
It’s been seven hours and fifteen days, since I’ve seen the outside of this tower. Not really, but if I can’t work a Sinéad O’Connor lyric in somehow then what is anything even about. It rained for five days straight rendering my daily walks impossible. I tried going out with a raincoat but it was so unpleasant and when I got back things took so long to dry it just wasn’t worth it. So I locked myself in to wait it out, daring the skies to maintain their bad mood.
I cleaned the tower methodically. I actually enjoyed scrubbing the stairs and dusting the bricks. How so much dust managed to get in is beyond me, but I made myself an enemy of it. The fireplace came with ye olde dusting apparatus that made it feel like more of a fun game than a chore, which is just about the saddest thing I have ever heard of.
I spent my time reading a lot. I was averaging about a book a day which even for me is almost ludicrous. Some were good and some were average. I read one book that was so good I didn’t get up even to pee or eat and when it was over I was crying so much I think I dehydrated myself. I still don’t know if it was even that good or if I had simply lost the connection to the real world so much the written was becoming more tangible.
Fred, the pigeon who visits the arrow slit window by my bed, became my closest companion. Every morning he would fly up and coo me awake. I would tell him about my dreams and he would coo away as the good listener he is. I tried to listen to his stories but my pigeon is about as good as my Italian at this stage so our communication was fraught with difficulty.
The cats started making strange noises at night. I may have been going mad but it genuinely sounded like their meows were more like a “hello”, as if they were trying to lure me outside, their cold fascist throats belying their heritage and butchering the English language in misguided attempts at luring me to my doom. Foolish felines, I’m the last person to fall prey to the midnight call of a beckoning pussy.
The rain refused to let up. Every day I would wake and see the dark skies and wet valley and sigh. I cleaned some more even though I knew even the most tenacious dust hadn’t had the chance to settle. There was something terribly dreamy about being trapped in a tower, but with only a pigeon to share the whimsy my outlook wasn’t great.
I spent hours locked in the dungeon before finally realising the door was a pull not push kind of door.
Things were getting serious. My giant flagon of wine was running dangerously low and Fred hadn’t been to visit in a couple of days, meaning I really was all alone. I made the mistake of reading Call Me By Your Name, thinking the Italian setting of the book apt. Reading something so beautiful only exacerbated my situation and I knew I had to do something. Even if the rain let up, I had explored pretty much the entire walkable radius of the village and the need for something more than this provincial life was reaching boiling point.
I had asked Flavio, my host who lives a couple of villages over, if he knew of any way I could get a bicycle a couple of weeks ago, and he said I could borrow one of his family bikes. After a lot of “I’ll bring it tomorrow”’s that never eventuated, I stopped bothering him, not wanting to come across as a pest. I was watching The Handmaid’s Tale and got inspired at Offred’s courage to manipulate her way out of her locked room, and decided to send Flavio a message subtly threatening to go mad and how that would reflect in my review of the castle. The next day he delivered a bicycle and with it the sunshine and clear skies. Freedom was now so real I wanted to make it my lover.
Riding around the countryside was an immeasurably greater experience than walking. Apart from the obvious factor of being able to increase the scope of my exploring, the local motorists were far more accepting. Instead of honking at my ambling frame as I walked along the side of the road, they would wave and call out “Ciao!” from their cars as they passed me. It was the kind of acceptance I had been dreaming of and it just felt so right. Also, riding without a helmet and having the wind in my hair was exactly as liberating as I had always imagined it to be.
On the first day I was out traversing the Umbrian countryside on my hot new wheels, I felt so free I let go of the handlebars and released my arms to the sky, something I’d done thousands of times before but here it just had so much more weight behind it. The sun beat down on my face and the crisp rural air enveloped me and I almost felt like I could rise up and float away. Yet, because I am who I am, I instead stumbled and fell into a ditch on the side of the road.
I rode about an hour and a half away from my village and came across many small mountain towns and in one particular one, a school bus passed me. It was so small and quaint and as it passed me, a child in the back waved at me. I waved back, and the little cunt flipped me off. It sped away before I could react, leaving me shaking my fist at the bus like an old man at a cloud.
On the second day of sweet, sweet freedom, while walking my bike up a particularly unforgiving hill, I came across a kindly old lady pottering in her garden. She spoke to me and I spoke back as best I could but told her I probably couldn’t have a conversation with her. She waved me over and showed me her garden, which was, I suppose, impressive looking. I told her how I was just visiting and spending the month here alone and she gave me a sad-face look, but I assured her it was fine. She picked some lettuce leaves and handed them to me which was nice. Then some chickens came running over and I squealed with joy. Adoro I polli! She noticed my affection toward them, and pointed at them, picking one up in the process, and pointing at me. I understood that she wanted me to pick one up, which was exactly what I had wanted to do and I smiled with glee. I grabbed one and it yielded to my touch like it was fate. She was so beautiful, and in my head, I named her Matilda. The woman smiled at me and said some more things I didn’t understand, then took the chicken from me. The entire moment was so pure and wonderful and I felt the warmest I had the entire time I had been there. Then with a quick flick, she broke Matilda’s neck. She swung her around and held her limp body in front of me. I couldn’t move, stunned. Was this some kind of murder house? A man, I assumed her husband, came out with a tray of coffee for us and indicated that I sit. I couldn’t refuse because I was still in shock from my new friend’s untimely demise, and he took the chicken from his wife and went inside. She spoke only a few English words, so I let her chat away to me in Italian, understanding nothing, and kept a smile on my face so as not to offend and reveal my extreme discomfort. I wanted to tell her that when we have people over for coffee in Australia we don’t kill our pets in front of them, but even if my Italian was at that level I was still a bit shocked to speak. The man came back outside holding Matilda who was now dripping wet, I had assumed he had bled her out and boiled her to loosen the feathers, because he handed her to his wife and she plucked away while chatting to me, as if the scene was entirely normal. When she was done, she put Matilda in a plastic bag and handed it to me. With a smile on her face, she simply said, in broken English, “Merry Christmas”, and I thanked her and left. As awful as it was, I was on my way to the supermarket to pick up something for Christmas so I suppose it was actually incredibly fortuitous. The universe works in mysterious and shocking ways. It also dawned on me that I had to stop naming the animals I came across because they seemed to end up dead in my arms. With that thought, I suddenly feared for Fred and hoped he was ok.
In the car park of a supermarket I had ridden to, I rebuked the attention of a young man who was trying to sell me socks. He replied in English, inquiring to my accent. After learning he spoke English, I set upon him like a hound starved for weeks and unleashed a voice I had almost forgotten I had. He suggested we go for a beer and without trying to come across too keen for human company, I accepted. The town we were in was small but much larger than my village and so welcoming I found the Christmas decorations that the main street was drenched in really beautiful instead of ugly and offensive. People in shops waved at me as I walked past and people smiled and said hello. I was at a bar that people seemed happy to have me at. I had a person I could have a conversation with. I was so happy I wanted to cry but didn’t for fear of showing weakness to my new friend. I rode home that day feeling like I had been touched by the true magic of Italy, the kind foreigners romanticise, that I had been denied by locking myself in a tower.
I had to completely gut and prepare my new festive lunch and it was possibly the most uncute experience of my life. As I ripped and pulled and cut away, I listened to the soothing melancholy of Joni Mitchell. I don’t know why, it just seemed like the right soundtrack to such a task.
Christmas fast approached and while at first I didn’t mind spending it alone due to my distaste for the holiday, I found that the closer it got the more I wasn’t too keen on the idea. It was easier to hate things when there were people to hate it with. Then, as if she heard my silent cries to the night sky, my friend Steph deviated from her European travels and joined me for the holiday. After missing her stop and ending up in Rome, arriving at 2am on another bus and a lot of frantic calls to Perugia’s taxi service making sure they found her, she arrived in the early hours of Christmas morning. Adorned with a head of platinum blonde hair and a smile for days, she already had that holy glow to her, but in the Umbrian sunlight that leaked through the tower window the morning after she arrived, she looked so much like an angel I could have sworn I even heard Fred say the word “miracle”.