I’d seen the picture before while thumbing through the delicate, crumbling photo albums that lined the shelves in the breakfast room. The sepia lives of my grandparents were arranged behind brittle cellophane on yellowing pages, their eyes shadowed slits in the sunlight, their glasses full, their hair present and perfect.
Ewart, Trieste, 1948. It was scrawled on the back in fountain pen by his flickering hand. He is pictured in a sergeant’s uniform, leaning against a wall, one hand in his pocket and the other at his side in the same loose fist that he’d carried next to him his whole life – a small detail of his being that I had always noticed but never thought about. It was part of the minutiae that I associated with my grandparents – the lingering smell of noxious chemicals in the garage or the whispering tick of the small clock on the mantelpiece or the lichen on the stones of the terrace.
He was twenty years old in the picture and still, somehow, my grandfather. His fist at his side, his smile poised between witticisms.
We’d been sitting on the pier for hours, drinking out of small plastic cups and playing instruments while a large group of Afghan refugees watched intently and said little. Federica and Nathan looked at the picture on my phone and immediately identified the place as Piazza Goldoni. Nicola, a squat young woodworker, who had taken an unfortunate and canine liking to me in the hour since we’d met, offered to take me there on his motorbike. In spite of the looming certainty that I’d spend some time deflecting wayward affection, roaring through empty streets on a motorcycle in pursuit of family honor seemed like the Italian thing to do.
I tore the helmet off and ran to the staircase that overlooked Piazza Goldoni. It was as though I was sleepwalking, like I’d been guided there by some undercurrent, and when I reached the wall on which he’d leaned 68 years earlier I was somewhere else entirely. I was running towards him at Gatwick Airport. I was unsticking my legs from the gray leather seat of his Saab on the way to Cornwall. I was being renamed Felicity Jane or being accused through his grin of being a tornado – inside jokes that he waited all year to revisit. I was watching him drink beer or tea and never anything else. I was laughing while my grandmother continued the tradition of admonishing him for shooting squirrels from the bathroom window. There were hundreds of them but they weren’t complete memories. They came one after the other, in quick succession, in no particular order. It was an upwelling and then a deluge.
When he stood there in 1948, he had ahead of him an entire lifetime of decisions that, in the benign and magical nature of fate, had brought me there. It was as if I’d arrived on a Möbius strip – a straight line that connects the past and the present, twisting undetected along the way.