by | Jul 21, 2022

The arms of two people, and a beach in semi-dark with palm trees

Photograph by Clarissa Fragoso Pinheiro

The few tenants left on Piazza di Santa Maria awoke to find a fallen palm tree lying in the middle of the square. The wind had caught it. A second palm remained five meters tall on the opposite side, alone and defiant. The early morning light covered the square in a bright glow, marking the peeling yellow abandoned community center. Vito’s fading restaurant squared off the opposite side, its sign missing the “i,” and sun-bleached “For Sale” posters hung in the windows. The wind ruffled the palm’s leaves, and the sunlight pulled at the weeds.


Pamela Loretti lived alone, and she didn’t like change. Her recent retirement had been spent avoiding the inevitable; she clung to how things were supposed to be. Others may see her as an old 65, but she fit in here just fine. That morning, as she curled up under the sheets with distant memories of her husband, an empty feeling crept up from behind her. Its cold crawled around her shoulders and hung over her shriveled heart. She rubbed her aching legs and stayed beneath the covers. Pamela Loretti lived alone because the wind took her family.


Sat up, bent double on her bed, legs swung round, she looked up and found her morning view strange. The palm tree directly outside her window was gone. Bright yellow morning sunlight filled the frame. She steadied herself on the bed. What fresh idiot would cut down a palm tree? She looked down out of her window to find the empty square filled by the fallen tree. The cracked cobbles were softened by a collage of dried brown leaves. She peered further to find her vintage orange Fiat 500 flattened by the trunk. Rage stuck to her insides like the August heat. How could this be?


The wind must have surged through the square while she was asleep. Pamela looked out at the open sky and thought about that doomed palm tree, sentenced like many others living on the square, it had little reason to hang around here. But her car, that belonged to her. Her sons, whenever they came back, made fun of her. Said that it’s quicker to walk. That she’s holding on to the past. “Come on, get in,” she’d say, “it’s a beautiful orange, reminds me of the ’70s.”  


Her heavy legs and short temper resigned her to the aging process. She was unable to enjoy its freedoms. But this was about to change. She tightened her dressing gown around her stocky waist and went to inspect the damage downstairs. She peered out as if an unknown guest had disturbed her. “What a sight,” she said to no one. The roots of the palm were ripped clean. The crash site no less than two steps from her building. It blocked the pavement to her left. She looked in disbelief at the roots, decorated with pieces of tarmac. A clean extraction, as if hand plucked, or a planned escape. Its brown peeling trunk had crushed the top of her car. She noticed a large spill of oil underneath the carriage. It was beyond repair. She furiously kicked the wheel and beat the tree trunk with her fists. She slumped down opposite the shuttered-up shops on the edge of the pavement and looked up at the one remaining palm on the square. “You’re still here,” she said.


The square felt more deserted than ever before. Too early for others to be up. There was nothing anyone could do right now. Pamela stared to her left and saw that the top of the palm had pierced her downstairs window. Inside she bent down to pick up pieces of glass underneath the hairy green intruder, its long green spikes bursting into her dining room. Pamela looked out at the square. Electrical wires hung loose from the building opposite, washing racks broken and rusty in front of the windows. The brown cement eroded from the salty sea wind. If she hadn’t known any better, she would say it was deserted too.


Pamela imagined a small forest of palms springing up all around her, eventually uprooting everyone. When people leave, wildlife returns. They say first cats, then dogs, then weeds litter the streets. Then the tarmac cracks under the roots. Life springs up from below. Apart from some green patches between the cracked cobbles, the plants haven’t arrived at the square yet. But it was only a matter of time.

Carless and needing reassurance, she went to Marco’s. They spent a lot of time together, playing cards for hours late into the evening. Marco was another widowed sixty-something, aging visibly. She marched the streets to his shop, passing bakeries and cafés scattered with people and shutter after shutter after shutter. An orange car flashed by, and for a moment she thought she was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t her car that got crushed. Marco’s shop was shuttered down and triple padlocked. Closed. She made a fist and knocked, knowing it was futile. Normally Marco came down early to open up. No answer.


Around the corner, Marco’s tall house stood proud on an old cobbled side street. Its facade was alive with plants and its walls aged with the city’s history. Creepers spilled over the balconies, headed for the pavement. Pale green succulents hung onto the iron railings, disordered. The plants looked like they were falling mid-air in extremely slow motion. There was more life here than back at hers. Today, the building had taken a beating. Smashed plant pots and soil were scattered across the pavement. Pamela stood there, hands on her hips. The wind got Marco too. No answer at the door, she began to pick up broken pieces of plant pot, trying to ignore the intrusive thoughts unfolding: the worst may have happened.


Unsure what to do, she sat down on Marco’s front step and spotted an envelope sticking out from underneath a cactus pot. Addressed to her, the letter read, “Dear Pam, it’s time. Go live yours and I’ll live mine. I’m sorry. Marco.”


“No, no, no, no, no,” she said. The thought of Marco leaving came as a huge shock. She knew Marco wanted to go, and he knew she didn’t. Maybe that’s why their friendship had never evolved. And now it couldn’t. She clenched her fists and let out a low groan. As she stood up, the wind threw her onto the pavement. The hard ground met her face as her cheek smacked onto the stone. No sooner was she down, she rose back up cursing at the sky. Porca puttana! Fucking pig!


Pamela set off nowhere. “Typical Marco,” she hissed. Cazzo, cazzo! Fuck, fuck! Cursed was the day he helped fix her car. “Bah” she scowled, Marco and his charming smile, and his fucking huge heart. He could be so unfailingly kind, and so goddamn stubborn. Had he been planning this a long time? Had she ever believed that he would leave?

She strode along the sea front, the breeze from the ocean cool on her face. Her thoughts lifted to think of Marco fondly; she longed to see him again. From behind her, she felt the wind pick up and watched as the afternooners held onto their hats. The trees lining the boardwalk rustled louder than the waves. Something flapped against her leg, a flashy orange brochure. The ferry timetable. She opened it to an advert for the “Palma del Mediterraneo,” Palm of the Mediterranean. At the top of the page was a logo of two palm trees on either side of a cruise ship. She scrunched it and held her hand to her chest. She didn’t want to think of how far away Marco was on the ferry. Her gaze stretched out to the horizon. She knew he was elsewhere by now.


She sat down on a bench and looked out at the resting ocean. Calm and glistening, she wanted to simply step out and walk on it. Her life seemed trivial and fragile in the same breath. Why had she remained on the island? She tasted the salty air on her lips, closed her eyes and listened to the sea, drowning out the town behind her. The rhythm of the waves paced her to sleep.

Stiff, Pamela moved awake. She still held the letter and brochure tight, wiping the salty sweat off her face with the back of her hand. She hung her head, bent over, her thoughts caught up with her. The palm, the car, her house, Marco. Feet firm and eyes closed, she could see Marco’s words: “Go live yours.” She slapped her thigh to stop her thoughts. Leaving had never been an option. But the images had taken root, and she began to see other places. The ocean, mountains, Northern towns. Her sons. Never had they tried to convince her to come visit or leave home. For this, she had been grateful. Why not follow Marco? Could she give her life up here?


Pamela walked toward the ferry port, a defiant expression on her face. Leaving here wasn’t giving up. The day had been filled with disbelief; this time it was at her own actions, the rage of the morning left behind, replaced by growing independence. She was following in the footsteps of many before her. Any loss here meant new life elsewhere. Her sons had done it; they had had faith in the new.


Sat at the ferry terminal, she watched the harbor cats lie in the golden orange sun. She kissed the side of her index finger and made the sign of the cross. She realized she hadn’t gone to her husband’s grave to say goodbye. Apologizing to Peppe, she repeatedly kissed her finger. She watched two scruffy cats play fighting. They reminded her of her boys. She folded her arms and nodded proudly at the ocean through the terminal glass. Her life from now on would be about faith in the new. A voice rang out; all the passengers stood up. She moved with the crowd toward the ramp. Her decision to carry on living rooted deep in her. A choice to escape before the weeds set in.

Fiona Bewley

Publab Fellow 2022

Fiona Bewley is an editorial assistant at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, a China Studies graduate, and a foreign language enthusiast. In her spare time, she writes fiction and is currently working on short stories for her first collection, I don’t want to be here anymore. The selection of stories is inspired by observing the creative ways people choose to escape and the painful quotidian substance of suicide, addiction, and running away.