A Thread of Sunlight
‘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.