I’m always late with the coffee. It should have been on before he arrived, it’s always more hospitable that way. He stands, taking up space in my hallway and I’m awkward. I don’t know what I expected of him, but he looks old. And it makes me feel old.
As I pack the fine powder into the well of the Bialetti, he scans the framed images along shelves and tabletops. Snapshots of my children and their children. Weddings and baptisms. He fires questions, as if to anticipate any beats of silence in the room. I tell him the names that belong to each face. He won’t remember them, but it gives me enough time until the water boils and the moka starts to spit, filling the room with its smell.
‘The smell of coffee is like home to me,’ he says, watching gratefully as I load the silver tray with espresso cups and saucers, and two glasses of water. The tray sticks to the plastic tablecloth as I position it within his reach. We shake the sugar sachets in unison and stir, our teaspoons ringing against the inside of the cups.
That smell is home to me too. It’s what I’d wake to in the mornings, while my mother prepared for work. It’s the smell that would accompany the loud disputes of moral outrage as we digested our lunch, sitting on the sun-drenched balcony of the flat we lived in with my aunts.
After trading well-mannered niceties, he dives in. ‘It’s interesting, that you don’t speak with a southern accent,’ he says. ‘After all these years living in the north, do you consider yourself Milanese now?’ There’s mild scorn in his joviality.
‘I think it was during my university days, I didn’t really notice losing it,’ I reply. I refrain from telling him that it’s the connotations of that Neopolitan accent that I grew to loath. He would be offended. His own accent is thick with it.
‘Ah! So, it’s political. You’ve abandoned the terroni for La Lega Nord!’ I don’t laugh.
‘I’m joking of course,’ he continues. ‘But it’s also a shame – the south is our country’s beating heart. There’s no sense of regional pride these days.’
‘Nothing about my accent is political,’ I say. ‘It’s personal. It’s, just evolved.’ I’m aware that I’m folding the empty sugar sachet over itself repeatedly. This familiar entitlement from a total stranger is disarming.
‘Well. Hopefully, for your family’s sake, your cooking skills haven’t evolved.’ This, I suppose, is meant as a joke.
‘You’ve spent so many years in London, but you speak like a true paisan’.’ I know that word is distasteful, yet I can’t help but use it.
‘You must have had a good life down there. My southern existence taught me something else. I didn’t want a life chained to a kitchen… to a man.’
The hum of Vespa in the road below chaperones the silence. We both look down at the plastic tablecloth. It’s not his fault, I even surprise myself by how sensitive I can I be.
He picks up the painted yellow and blue espresso cup, the tiny handle clutched perilously between his chubby fingers.
‘But you have coffee cups from our hometown. So, that’s something.’ He smiles. ‘You know, these colours always remind me of the lemons on the coast, and the sea.’
I smile too, because I have those cups for the same reason.
‘When I first moved to London,’ he continues, ‘I thought the lemons there were yellow apricots. I cannot tell you how small the lemons are in London.’
He talks to me with the affected familiarity of an old friend. He tells me about other people from our childhood, what they are doing and where they are now. He tells me about the ones who are dead. It doesn’t seem to matter that I don’t remember most of them—he tells me about them anyway.
‘It’s amazing how many people you seem to have forgotten,’ he says, mindlessly. ‘And there are so many you didn’t even know at the time.’
I am not surprised. I don’t even know this this grey-haired man sitting here now, whom I’d arranged to meet myself. There’s a generation of history that separates us. But I do remember the boy he once was. His skinny legs partially covered by little shorts and pulled up socks. I used to watch him, with his five brothers and little sister.
‘Do you remember that day when you followed me down the steps
through the lemon groves to my mother’s house?’ I ask.
He nods sentimentally, but he’s unable to piece together the details. I’m sure he thinks he’s being kind by lying. Until today, we have never spoken a word to each other. That particular day had been the closest we’d ever got.
It was an afternoon when that eternally kaleidoscopic sea offered no reprieve, and my hair clung in clumps to the back of my neck.