Gi­ada Niz­zoli

A Thread of Sun­light

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‘Ex­cuse me,’ I asked her, timidly tap­ping her dark ebony shoul­der. ‘Are you the one who braids hair with sun­light?’

There were many Sene­galese women roam­ing up and down the beach in Car­rara, sell­ing sim­ple jew­ellery, coun­ter­feit CDs, or braid­ing hair with coloured threads. But I had heard of only one who did it with sun­light. When she turned around, the an­swer gleamed in her sap­phire eyes and in the am­ber halo around her shoul­der bag. She tapped it, mak­ing her row of metal bracelets jan­gle.

‘Yes, princess,’ she said, ex­am­in­ing a wavy lock of my blonde hair, so fair in her hand. ‘Got threads of light from last sun­set I see in my Sene­gal. Five euro for braid.’

I glanced at the sea. The sun didn’t look far from the scarlet horizon, and the rhyth­mic waves were bring­ing its cop­per and golden re­flex to­wards us.

‘Do you think you could use this light, in­stead? It’s my last sun­set in Car­rara for…’ I raised my shoul­ders, ‘I don’t know how long.’

***

I rarely got to catch trains and get out of town, but when I did it was al­ways plat­form two. They were old, rusty, and of­ten late. Some­times they didn’t show up at all. They were the ones go­ing to­wards Pisa – still in Tus­cany – which was the far­thest I could get with­out re­ceiv­ing wor­ried texts from Mum.

But not this time. This time, in the mist that ac­com­pa­nied the chill­ness of that Septem­ber dawn, I was stand­ing on plat­form one. This was a fast

mod­ern train, and it would have taken me north. Out of Car­rara, out of Tus­cany and, af­ter chang­ing at Mi­lan, out of Italy. It would have taken me to Ser­gio, and my par­ents would have had to deal with it. Even if I ended up miss­ing Car­rara, I couldn’t wait to break free from the spi­der­web of ap­pre­hen­sion in which I felt trapped at home.

‘You’ve only known him for a sum­mer,’ my mum had ob­jected. ‘And you are barely nine­teen, Beatrice!’ That was her air­tight ar­gu­ment, ex­cept for the fact that she had rushed into her doomed mar­riage with my fa­ther when she was only twenty.

But Ser­gio was dif­fer­ent from how she pic­tured him, and he was se­ri­ous. Why else would he have kissed me first, when I had met him at that club night at the beach, if he thought we couldn’t make it last af­ter sum­mer? True, he seemed a bit shocked when I sug­gested that I could fol­low him to Switzer­land, but I’m sure it was just his way to deal with all that over­whelm­ing hap­pi­ness.

As the mar­ble quar­ries were dis­ap­pear­ing, the Apuan Alps turn­ing into higher peaks, and the tun­nels be­com­ing more fre­quent, I felt the adren­a­line. I curled up in the red jumper that Mum had knit­ted and handed me with a sad smile when I was pack­ing my suit­case. Yes, I thought, twist­ing my braid of sun­light. My life was tak­ing the right turn.

‘Beatrice,’ Ser­gio smiled when he opened the door in his favourite red checked shirt. He couldn’t come and pick me up at Mon­treux Sta­tion, but it was ok be­cause his house-share was quite easy to find.

As he knelt down to kiss me, I felt his prickly stub­ble on my skin. I ca­ressed his brown fringe and looked into his dark, beady eyes. ‘I missed you,’ I sighed, ine­bri­ated by the smell of his manly af­ter­shave.

‘Yeah, me too,’ he said, look­ing away. ‘Come in, I’ll show you around

be­fore tak­ing you to my friend’s place. By the way,’ he added, pick­ing up his new cam­era, ‘she said that there’s a va­cancy in the bak­ery where she works, if you want.’

‘That’d be awe­some!’ ‘As long as you can still help me out with that lan­guage thingy.’ ‘Of course, silly.’ I rolled my eyes.

We both spoke French, which was all we needed in that can­ton, but if Ser­gio wanted to ex­pand his free­lance photography busi­ness to Bern he would have needed some Ger­man for his web­site and con­stant cor­re­spon­dence.

‘Re­ally, Beatrice?’ he had asked on a late Au­gust dusk. ‘You speak Ger­man?’ ‘Well, just school level, but yes.’

He had nod­ded, tak­ing an­other drag off his cig­a­rette. ‘Oh, by the way, I was think­ing ear­lier to­day – it just crossed my mind now com­pletely ran­domly! I re­alised that I was wrong. It’s ac­tu­ally a great idea, you com­ing to Switzer­land, you know? For us, I mean.’

And there I was. We crossed the shared lounge, where one of his three house­mates smiled at me be­fore go­ing back to rolling a spliff. The cel­lar was Ser­gio’s dark­room. Even though his clients mainly re­quired dig­i­tal pic­tures, he in­sisted that he wouldn’t be a real pho­tog­ra­pher with­out one. His bed­room was up­stairs. A few shirts, t-shirts and a pair of trousers were piled up on the bed. He moved them onto a chair, get­ting me to sit down next to him.

‘Do you no­tice any­thing dif­fer­ent?’ I smiled, re­frain­ing my­self from play­ing with my yel­low braid.

‘Yes,’ he smirked. ‘Your jumper is not needed right now.’

Ser­gio needed more op­por­tu­ni­ties than Car­rara could of­fer, that’s why he had moved abroad, but he had cho­sen Mon­treux be­cause it re­minded him of our home­town. ‘There’s moun­tains and a lake,’ he had ex­plained in July, when we were sit­ting on the mar­ble cliffs. ‘I know it’s not like the sea, but it’s big enough to look like it.’

It was more ex­pen­sive than Car­rara, for sure, but the pay was bet­ter, too. Plunged in the warm smell of fresh bread and pas­tries, I em­braced the lit­tle buzzing world of the bak­ery. Work­ing there meant that I had to wake up early, but also that I’d be fin­ished by 2 p.m.: it’d leave me the rest of the day to help out Ser­gio with emails and phone calls in Ger­man. And to be to­gether, of course.

I was in­de­pen­dent, free from my par­ents’ anx­i­ety. It was all per­fect, truly. Ex­cept for that wound.

It hap­pened when Ser­gio and I were cud­dling in bed, at mine. It must have been nearly one o’clock in the morn­ing, but, still, his phone had lit up in the dark room and started buzzing. He had promptly put it face down.

‘Who-who’s that?’ ‘Just some client.’ ‘At this time?’ ‘Some client that doesn’t re­spect work­ing times, I guess.’ ‘Oh,’ I mum­bled.

At first, I had only felt a lump in my throat. I thought it’d dis­ap­pear if I swal­lowed it, but the pain went down my stom­ach and this wound opened

out of nowhere. I felt the blind­ing pain of my skin stretch­ing and break­ing. Right in the mid­dle of my chest, at least two fingers wide.

‘S-sorry, I’ll be back in a sec­ond,’ I had mut­tered, rush­ing to the bath­room. I had taken off my py­ja­mas and fum­bled for thread and nee­dle. Slowly, I had sewn my skin back to­gether, the white thread in­stantly cov­ered in blood. When I was sure that it was no longer drip­ping, I had gone back to Ser­gio, who had snorted and shook his head.

Af­ter that, my wound was fine most of the time, but oc­ca­sion­ally it would re­open.

‘I can’t wait for to­mor­row!’ ‘Why?’ asked Ser­gio, scrolling down his Face­book feed. ‘Stop jok­ing,’ I had laughed, pok­ing his arm. ‘You know.’ ‘Do I?’

‘Well, you are the one who asked me to swap my day off to go and talk to those clients in Bern and visit the city af­ter­wards.’

‘Oh yeah, that,’ he had said, putting the phone back on his bedside ta­ble. ‘Sorry, that man can­celled on me, I for­got to men­tion it.’

I had raised my shoul­ders. ‘That’s ok,’ I had whis­pered, look­ing down. But my wound re­opened right in that mo­ment.

I had promptly reached for my bag, where I had started keep­ing a bun­dle of thread, but I had failed to stop a few drops of blood from fall­ing. They had landed with the low­est, muf­fled splash, bright red on the can­did sheets.

‘You stained my bed,’ com­plained Ser­gio, mas­sag­ing his fore­head with two fingers.

The wound had bled more as I was fran­ti­cally try­ing to sew it back to­gether. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s a very im­por­tant client,’ he had re­peated at least three times. ‘It’s al­ready a mir­a­cle they ap­proached me in the first place! If I man­age to get a pho­to­shoot with them,’ he had ex­plained, cup­ping my face in his hands, ‘it’d be a big step for my busi­ness. This email must be per­fect, Beatrice!’

Sit­ting in his room by my­self dur­ing my only day off, I spent over an hour craft­ing and edit­ing it. I cross-checked my Ger­man with a dic­tionary and two dif­fer­ent web­sites.

‘ Mit fre­undlichen Grüßen,’ I ended it po­litely, ‘Ser­gio PH.’

My teacher’s words echoed in my head when I was about to click ‘send’. ‘Af­ter you have writ­ten some­thing,’ she used to say, ‘leave it for a while, at least half an hour. And then go back to it and edit it. In this way, it will be as if you are read­ing it for the first time, and you’ll spot any­thing wrong with it.’

So I stopped. It was such an im­por­tant task that I re­ally couldn’t ruin it. I looked around, dan­gling my feet from the chair. If only Ser­gio were there whilst I was wait­ing.

I de­cided to go through the last pic­tures he took: a pho­to­shoot on the moun­tains for a birth­day. He was such a good pho­tog­ra­pher! In this one the birth­day boy seemed to be reach­ing for the sun, in that one two lit­tle girls were per­fectly on fo­cus against a blurred back­ground of pink roses. In the fol­low­ing one–

I paused. My ears started buzzing. That one didn’t be­long to the same pho­to­shoot. It def­i­nitely didn’t. The wound opened. I brought a hand to

my chest and in­stinc­tively pushed the chair away from the desk, to save Ser­gio’s lap­top from blood­stains. Wait, why did I care?

I slammed it closed with my bloody hand, mak­ing sure I’d leave a mark on it. Then I rushed to the bath­room, grab­bing my purse on the way. Thread! I des­per­ately needed thread and nee­dle. This time the wound was bleed­ing like never be­fore.

I kept see­ing them. Ser­gio and that girl kiss­ing in the pic­ture. He had his usual red shirt on, and the same look in his beady eyes that he had when he was look­ing at me at the be­gin­ning of our sum­mer to­gether. Tears rolled down my cheeks. One made it down to the wound, and its painful salti­ness made it hard to re­press a scream.

I had no more thread! I fum­bled through the two cab­i­nets above the sink. Noth­ing. Noth­ing! I sat down, try­ing to catch some breath be­tween the sighs. I ran a wet hand through my hair, un­til I felt a dif­fer­ent tex­ture. My braid.

I grabbed a pair of scis­sors and cut it out, dis­en­tan­gling the bright threads. With a shaky hand, I passed one through the eye of the nee­dle and pro­ceeded to sew my skin back to­gether again for the umpteenth time.

But it was dif­fer­ent. As the warm thread of light from that sun­set in Car­rara pierced through my skin, so close to my heart, a mel­low sen­sa­tion of peace took over. Slower breaths, like that. Again, in, for a few sec­onds. One, two, three, four, five. And now out again. One, two, three, four, five.

Stitch af­ter stitch, I re­alised how stupid and gullible I had been. My de­ci­sion to go back home was taken by the time I got to the fi­nal one. I would have

spo­ken to the man­ager of the bak­ery the fol­low­ing day, and then got on the first train.

Stand­ing on the top of the stairs, the iron smell of blood still in my nos­trils, I stopped. I went back to Ser­gio’s bed­room and re­opened the lap­top. The email was still there, un­sent.

My teacher was right: I should never send some­thing with­out tak­ing the time to edit it af­ter half an hour. I’m glad I did. ‘ Arsch’ is a much more versatile word than ‘ Grüßen’: not only did it tell those po­ten­tial clients what to kiss, but it also sug­gested where they could put Ser­gio’s pho­to­shoot.

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