Under a Sardinian Sky, page 1
SARA ALEXANDER attended Hampstead School, went on to graduate from the University of Bristol, with a BA hons in Theatre, Film & TV. She followed on to complete her postgraduate diploma in acting from Drama Studio London. She has worked extensively in the theatre, film and television industries, including roles in much loved productions such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Doctor Who, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Sparrow. She is based in London.
For Pietruccia and Carmela,
wheresoever they dance
About the Author
In Zia Piera’s wardrobe I can find anything from a fluorescent paisley dressing gown from 1963 to a pair of dejected Baghdad trousers with a jarring 1980s print. Hipsters would salivate over the latter. I’ve never grasped the concept of ironic dressing. I’m not a girl who could spend a day with that geometric noise on me. I like the anonymity of my half-dozen washed-out T-shirts and two pairs of jeans. It makes packing for my travel writing a swift affair so I can use my time for more fulfilling tasks like eating food I don’t recognize and can’t pronounce or sniffing out the local inebriation haunts in whichever nook of the globe my work has zapped me to.
I catch my reflection in the mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door as I open it. My body is straight as a board. My head is topped with a mass of rebellious black curls perched above a “thinker’s” nose, as my uncle calls it, with little to ogle at in between. The mirror and I are fair-weather friends. My ancestral line suggests a predisposition to ample bosoms, a pert ass, irresistible olive skin, and those gooey chocolate eyes guys fall into, just like any prime example of a Sardinian female. My sister, not I, received such gifts at birth.
I’m inept at ironing, blow drying, and nail painting. I don’t lick my floors clean, wipe the sink with bleach after use, or stash half a pharmacy of feminine hygiene washes. I escaped those Italian manias. Doesn’t mean I can’t cook the best gnocchetti I’ve ever tasted, roast a suckling pig to perfection, and tell you the year any particular Cannonau red wine was barreled—just by the smell. I also give up very, very rarely, on anything. Ever. This alone proves I am not, in fact, adopted.
I peel off Zia Piera’s tailored jacket, which, out of respect for my mother, I had borrowed for the service this morning to disguise myself as a bona fide Italian grown-up. I reach inside the wardrobe for a hanger. The five decades of hoarding clothes means there are suitable outfits for all occasions—whether it’s a solemn day, like today, or a frivolous night at my best friend’s house when she’s ordered me to play a Russian duchess, complete with mink stole and sequins, at one of her murder mystery parties with her Shoreditch actor mates. I prefer necking espressos and whiskey, just the two of us, but her thespy darlings are good company when all is said and done, even if they spend too much time arguing over which locally brewed botanical spirit deserves supreme worship. I fit the jacket around the hanger and squeeze it into a narrow space on the burdened rack. Then I grab my tobacco out of my pocket and walk into my parents’ spare room, slumping onto the bed to roll up.
Zia Piera’s funeral this morning has emptied my tank. My aunt died five days ago. We had all taken turns to sit by her throughout the day and evening that led to the night she passed. She was skeletal, disappearing into the bedsheets. My ten-month-old nephew had refused to settle down to sleep in the next room; my sister was over to help and looked gaunt with worry and frustration. Sometimes Zia Piera’s expression reminded me of my sister during labor. The pain, like contractions, seemed to come in waves. In between, she would settle, the thin skin on her cheeks hollowing into her face.
When my mother entered, not long before midnight, she’d taken one look at her sister and asked me to call for the doctor. I did. We’d helped Zia Piera onto a chair beside the bed when he arrived. He spoke softly, as if he was interrupting, like someone shuffling along a full row of seats in the middle of a play. “I’m going to ask you a few questions, Piera,” he’d said.
We looked at him.
“Can you tell me where it hurts?” he’d asked.
Mum and I turned back to Zia Piera.
In the second it took for us to do so, she had taken her last breath.
The doctor offered condolences. We all began talking in whispers. He started filling out forms. My mother had tapped into her nurse background and performed all the necessary procedures with clinical calm. My sister’s baby finally fell asleep, as if he had intuited the release in the room next to his. My father brought up a bottle of mirto, an aromatic elixir, which my aunt had made some months ago by soaking wild myrtle berries in aqua vitae. We toasted her carcass. That is what it seemed to me. She was somewhere else now. Not there, in that skinny frame.
My Piera had fat fingers stacked with sparkling, semipreciousgem rings that she’d bought after fierce haggling with the Senegalese beach sellers hawking the crowded Sardinian coast. My Piera wore rhinestone-encrusted sneakers and visited her sister, who now lives in my late grandmother’s house, inland of those beaches, with cases full of curry powder, dry-roasted peanuts, and pyramidal British tea bags as exotic gifts. My Piera could cook for twenty-five people with the ease another would fry an egg. She had a tongue to cut through any bullshit and a razor-sharp memory that filed every wrong, every triumph, and every little beige moment in between—from the pope’s visit to her hometown of Simius when she was three to what socks the local north London bus driver wore two weeks ago.
Now Zia Piera smiles at me, like she always does, from the photo on the bedside table of this tidy room reserved for guests or itinerant offspring. We took the shot at our favorite Sardinian cove on the last day of our stay at the summerhouse, when we knew she’d only ever return to her island as ashes. Cancer was rippling through her lungs even though, at seventy-three, she miraculously had come out on top after surgery and chemotherapy for pancreatic tumors. All the pictures of her during her final summer are resplendent. She’d gone on a last-minute retreat near Bologna with a friend and, in her words, “met the angels.” She reconnected with her long-lost cousins in southern France.
In short, she did what I’d urged her to do one wet afternoon in Edinburgh, when she visited me while I covered the city’s theatre festival for a broadsheet. I asked her then if she was scared. She responded with a quintessential Sardinian shrug. Could mean yes. Could mean no. Could mean I don’t know; the universal body language for I can’t give you words for that, or the Sardinian for I won’t give you an answer to that. Why commit to a thought, a stance, when we could hover in the vagaries of a purgatorial no-man’sland?
“You are in a way really lucky,” I’d said at the time, once again clawing out of the earthy pits of realism toward delusional optimism. “You’ve been given a warning. It’s a chance to
Her tears finally came—the first I’d seen since the ordeal started the previous year. In that condensation-thick Scottish café, Zia Piera and I sobbed into laughter, leaving little pools on the dirty floor for the impish shadow of Death to frolic in.
The only other time I’d seen her cry was when she talked about her beloved sister Carmela.
I stick my head out of the spare room window and inhale. I was with Zia Piera when the doctors diagnosed her pancreatic cancer. When they asked her if she exercised she answered them with a gruff “No!” Then they laughed—I explained she walked three miles daily because in the next neighborhood she could buy bananas two pence cheaper per kilo. When they asked her if she was on medication, she replied, “Yes, I take ibuprofen if I have a toothache.” They didn’t understand her at first, her thick Italian accent always elicited either condescension or bafflement from the listener. Once I had repeated it, they laughed at that too—at that sweet, old Italian lady with the funny voice and the dancing hands, whose number was almost up. Grimness and comedy twirled a dance—the perpetual symbiotic pair, like fish and chips, tea and cake, pasta and parmigiano.
I breathe out my smoke and watch it waft over my mother’s prizewinning back garden. My boyfriend—I use the term with some hesitation—drifts into my mind. I stayed over at his place last night so I could cry loudly. Then we made love all night. He likes having sex to music. Last night it was the opening track of Astral Weeks. It played the first time we did it. That was the night I fed him nearly comatose with my family’s guarded recipes: homemade gnocchetti with sage butter and a liberal, fresh grating of Sardinian pecorino, followed by braised lamb with fennel and green olives. Then I revived him with a truck driver’s portion of very alcoholic tiramisu and a large pot of espresso to accompany my aunt’s homemade mirto. Only then did he finally loosen his guard and perform a fine demonstration of unbridled British passion; much like the crackling of a suckling pig roast, if you have the time, it is worth the wait. Only I prefer to have sex without the music. I like to hear nothing but the charged breathing of a lover, his sweat on my throat, the squelch of his hand hot in mine as we lift off into the ether. I hate an underscore. It feels contrived.
That’s why I know it can’t last. He’s a romantic, and his instinctive approach to seduction is like that of any true Brit: crablike. Couple this with the fact that my family can leave even the strongest soul bulldozed and it leaves little hope of a future together.
My father is my Jewish mother. He’s armed with a colorful spectrum of passive aggression, an unstoppable zest for life, and bombastic meltdowns that are devastating and fortifying; after growing up with him, the newspaper editors I work for feel like puppies on Valium. He was born to Russian-Polish Jews, grew up in a leafy suburb of north London, and fell for a demure Catholic girl from a then-little-known rustic island in the Mediterranean. I went to a Catholic school with all the other local Italian, Ghanaian, and Irish families. I learned the Bible stories by heart. I chose favorite saints, dependent on which names I liked best rather than good deeds.
At home, however, I’d pore over my dad’s collection of books about Atlantis and listen to his after-dinner lectures about space, or spirits being frequencies that we might tune into like a radio antenna—radical thinking for a nice Jewish boy from Golders Green. When my elementary school teacher asked me to draw God, I did my best scribble of a mesh of yellow and blue light in the center of my page, because that’s how my dad would describe Him/Her/The Universal Source. I remember my teacher’s arched eyebrow, but nothing more came of it because I went to mass every week and my grades were good.
My family speak over one another. We overfeed. We argue for fun. Loudly. I watched my boyfriend at the crematorium, even though I had insisted his attendance was a punishment he didn’t merit. I saw him look desperate to feel comfortable—and fall short despite his best efforts. No doubt he’s in love with the idea of charging at this fairly successful, London-born, Sardinian-Jew (ish) travel writer with boy hips and a Medusa mop. But the reality must be exhausting, I’m sure.
I look down at the yellowing tip of my forefinger. It reminds me how deeply my smoking disappoints my mother. I start to sob again. My mother is halfway through her own course of chemotherapy for breast cancer. The two women I love most in the world have been out to battle for months. One has fallen.
Now I wade through the first stages of grief while watching my mother battle on. I feel helpless, except for the odd misplaced joke I can offer here and there to lift spirits. I’ve sat next to Mum as the chemicals drip into her vein. I’ve given a mouthful to the mincing male matron reigning over the night staff in the hospital, who had mistakenly taken her blood pressure on her arm when her notes explicitly said not to, due to the removal of several lymph nodes. I’ve watched her sleep through the thick panes of a solitary room when her white cell count was dangerously low and contact was unadvised because of the high risk of fatal infections. I’ve watched her hair fall out. We’ve laughed at her shiny new head. We’ve chuckled when strangers compliment her fashionable new hairstyle, because we know it’s one of her wigs. We’ve clutched those snatched moments of happiness in all the small things, for each dinner she manages to cook on the good days. But there is still too much left unsaid. Too many questions I haven’t had the courage to ask. At night I cry in the bath. I sob until it hurts.
I cry on her behalf, for losing the sister who held me first while my mother rose to consciousness after a general anesthetic for a C-section during the heat wave of 1976. Zia Piera had lived in the house since that day. She had cooked for a small army every night. When we left for university she sent food parcels to my sister and me. Each delivery contained enough dried ramen to make you never want to set eyes on a noodle again, a lifetime supply of homemade biscuits, and tiny packets of saporita—a blend of spices, which, after much coercing, she had reluctantly revealed was her secret ingredient in tomato sauce, then dispatched them in wholesale quantities. I cry for two sisters facing a life without the other by their side.
When the tears fade into numbness, I feel a familiar, cold terror well up inside. I just let it drift through me, like a passing gray cloud. The worst has already happened. Zia Piera, who no one could imagine living to anything younger than 102, is dead. Yet the world plunders on. The sun rises, the weeds ramble, the universe squiggles into infinity. Mum and I have no choice but to face life and death with awe, fear, and joy.
I stub out my cigarette on a small ceramic dish and walk back into Zia Piera’s room next door. I open the wardrobe again and nuzzle my face into the dresses. They smell of her. There’s a bag hanging on a hook beside the mirror. I pull it down and run my hands over the soft leather. I like to imagine her fingerprints on the worn indentations along the front flap. I will take it everywhere I go now. There will be a warehouse amount of such vintage appendages to trawl when Mum and I feel ready to clear her room. What we will do with the 700 matchboxes and large collection of sugar sachets she’d pinched from every place she’d ever had a cup of tea in, ever, escapes me. In the end we’ll manage to let those go too, I imagine. The top two shelves of her bookcase are lined with a collection of porcelain dolls, forever looking at a hypnotic apparition on the horizon. In the bathroom next door, which she had the sole use of, on account of the folks having a cheeky en suite put in, her colorful, glittery nail polishes still sparkle on the skinny glass shelves inside the mirrored cabinets, a miniature cross between a pound shop and Aladdin’s cave.
I sit down on her bed. Mum changed the sheets after the private ambulance took Zia Piera out of the house on a stretcher, surrounded by a black body bag. I look at her pillow. That’s where I watched her toss and turn, every now and then mumbling inaudible mutterings. The last few words we exchanged echo in my mind. She had turned to me, eyes half closed. “Carmela?”
“No, Zia, it’s Mina, your niece.”
“I want to go with you to f
“It’s all right, you can rest now.”
I took her bony hand in mine. It was cold. My heart lurched.
“Carmela, where are you?” she asked, “Come back, Carmela. . . .” Her pleas faded into shallow breaths.
Carmela’s life has been retold to me in barbed whispers. Sometimes, at the mere mention of her name, family members’ and friends’ eyes still well with tears. A palpable sadness tinges even the happiest of times. It has always seemed that my mother and her three siblings neither laugh with all their bones nor cry like no one is watching. As I consider how the two women I love most in the world have battled cancer, it strikes me that the stifling of unexpressed, unresolved pain over their eldest sister manifested as life-threatening illnesses. The past eats at the women I love most on this planet, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let those haunting memories do any more damage. No dignity in being that passive bystander, harboring their pain to pass on to the next generation. The responsibility of breaking this cycle falls to me. I won’t watch my mother lose the fight.
Only one way to expose the real Carmela. Only one way to release her hold over my mothers. It’s what I’ve always done.
Seven years had passed since the roars of V-Day before the Sardinian town of Simius flung off its ashen veil of world war and threw an Assumption Day fiesta full of spectacle and hope. Children squealed beneath the strings of lights that rendered the stark, dusty central promenade unrecognizable. The narrow houses that lined the square, crushed together like skinny matriarchs pushing against one another for attention, boasted long strips of red and green fabric hung beneath their weary shutters. Benevolent, rosy-cheeked men butchered nougat. Farmers sold their pungent pecorino. Women flogged slabs of bitter almond brittle. And yet the Simiuns would never throw their hands in the air with the abandon of the singsong Neapolitans or caterwaul into the night with the joie de vivre gesticulation of the Romans.