A spluttering sound. I turn around and see a strange altered wheelchair: three wheels, motorized, dark red. A man in his sixties. Very tanned.
Black sun-glasses. Black close-fitting sleeveless T-shirt. The typical crash helmet of a German motorcyclist. Proud and handsome.
Legless. I follow him. He pauses and buys a packet of cigarettes.
I wish I had stopped as well. Talked to him. Taken a picture. But I go ahead, disappointed by my lack of bravery. Tomorrow I will come back and look for him.
The motorcyclist is not here today. It happens all the time. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Maybe he doesn’t live here. Maybe he doesn’t buy cigarettes every morning. Maybe it is not worth coming back everyday to the same place and wait for him. Maybe I won’t see him anymore… this morning I wonder if I have ever seen him. A mirage of the Salento seafront?
A big yellow dog, that has nothing better to do than lie in wait for me and run after me barking as soon as he sees me… just midway between me and my rendez-vous with the motoryzed man. A man with a hat that every morning takes care of the plants in his garden and today has greeted me. Good morning. The four ladies that go out and walk to lose weight. Group motivation. I’ve become part of a daily routine. But there is no trace of him in the landscape, not even today. I think I have lost all hope. I don’t even know if I want to cope with the stress of the dog that sooner or later will decide to taste my flesh. Why didn’t I stop the first day and simply ask for permission to take a picture of him?
This morning I reluctantly took the road. I didn’t want to meet the dog. I have been pedalling for twenty minutes thinking about the best strategy to confront it. The yellow dog wasn’t there. I arrived at the intersection where we had met for the first time. He wasn’t there. I went ahead.
I made a U-turn to go back. All of a sudden I heard the engine. It was his engine, I felt it, but I didn’t want to turn and look. I got so excited in those few moments when I felt him approaching. He came by my side. I turned to see if it was him. We looked into each other’s eyes, without saying a word. He went ahead. After a few metres he met a man that greeted him and called him by name but I couldn’t catch it because of my headphones. He passed by the tobacconist’s. The man warmly greeted me too, such things happen when you go the same road at the same time every morning. I sped up. I said to myself: this time I ask for permission to take a picture. He stops at the filling station. The attendant welcomes him with a hearty good morning. He lives here. Everybody knows him. This time I am going to ask for the picture. Now I am going to stop and take a picture of him. I look at him. He looks at me. This time I am going to ask... but I go ahead without pausing.
I don’t take any picture. I won’t bring anything back. Not even a good morning. Tomorrow? Again?
Another one. Another day in the same direction. The yellow dog has vanished. And so has the man with the hat that usually takes care of the garden. All the faces I see are unfamiliar. I pass by the filling station and see an old man, alone, silent, with his body mutilated at the buttock level. He looks at me. He reflects, I can feel it. Motionless in the shadow, he let the time of his endless days full of his past flow by. He is not wearing his sunglasses. Nor his crash helmet. Only an old grey-haired head. He doesn’t look proud. I didn’t stop. We only looked at each other, for the very last time. Then a big climbing. I am listening to Verdi’s Requiem. At last I see the downhill fall in front of me. The female singer screams. My loneliness screams. And I throw myself towards the void with tears that leave me without control.
Today he was at the filling station, wearing his sunglasses and black T-shirt. Motionless in the shadow. He was waiting for me. Our rendez-vous.
I nonchalantly passed by and we looked at each other. I raised my arm and waved like a little girl. Surprised, he jumped and quickly greeted me in turn. I could have stopped… but now it’s done. You have to be able to wait. Create the moment. And I passed by. And, while I kept on riding, a bumblebee comes out from a side street. An enormous mass of dark flesh that clothes can hardly contain, on a small motor scooter that disappears under his huge body. The helmet pressed on his head. The engine that hardly toils along. And all his body seems to sing softly following the vibrations of his motor scooter.
He was waiting for me. At the filling station, all dressed up, he was waiting for me. At the beginning I pretended I wasn’t looking at him, I saw him nervously bite his nails. And, as I was passing by, I turned and said good morning with a smile. He immediately answered me with a shrill “ciao”, he seemed relieved. Will I stop and talk to him? Will I ever know his story? Will I ever take a picture of him?
The day of the conversation. Last chapter?
The yellow dog was there, ready to bite me. It ran after me, as today was the day. Now or never. It gave up when it understood that I was ready to hit it with my bag. I thought that maybe I don’t want to run the risk of being bitten. I hurried up and pedalled without looking at the usual familiar details.
I decided to switch off the iPod. Für Alina by Arvo Pärt. Only myself and my thoughts. The wind blowing from the sea. The early morning sun. I arrived at the filling station and he was there. I went towards him. He was really surprised. God morning, Madam. He told me. Good morning. I answered. Nice to meet you. And I held out my hand to him as a formal introduction.
Antonio, from Taviano. He spends the summer in Mancaversa. A wife, two children, a grandchild. He had an accident at work. He was a carpenter. I used to like my job, he told me. Now I love to go around. Every morning from Mancaversa to Torre Suda. I love to chat with people. And, while we exchanged information about our lives, people greeted him. CIAO ANTONIO!
We met in Torre Suda. Our common destination in this long Italian summer. The gardening man warmly greeted me. Is it the last time?
The picture? I took it!
It is not over.
Today I have been waiting for him before the filling station. To take pictures of him in motion. As I saw him the first time. He stopped. He invited me to follow him to the filling station and it was as if we had known each other for ages. The two of us on the road, heading towards the same place. He was riding his strange motorbike, I was riding the awful blue bike that I had rented. As soon as we arrived, he took his helmet off and lit a cigarette. He was smoking in a normal way. Without posing. I told him that Thursday would be our last day. That’s a shame, he answered. You become fond of the people you see everyday. I told him that I didn’t feel like going back to work. And with a sad and regretful look and a nostalgic voice, he replied: Why? It is good to be able to work...
Tony. Penultimate day.
We arrived together. A usual rendez-vous. The attendant (handsome, tall, blonde, blue-eyed, with moustaches and a golden necklace) brought him a coffee. Serious. Almost irritating. I smiled. They wait for you with a cup of coffee, I said. Of course, he replied. Still serious, the attendant looked at me and offered me a cup too. No, thanks. Don’t stand on ceremony. I don’t like it, thank you. I hope you won’t take him away, he laughed. I couldn’t help smiling again. Why? I asked. What shall I do without Tony? he said. Tony told me that they are friends since 1968. They have been meeting everyday for 44 years. Friends for a lifetime. They don’t even talk to each other sometimes, but keep each other company.
Those friendships that are made of time spent together.
Is tomorrow the last day? Yes. Tomorrow is the last day.
And will you come back next year? I don’t think so. Ah.
May I take other pictures of you tomorrow? Sure. See you tomorrow.
Ciao beautiful lady! The last day.
Now I am a familiar person. The pump attendant greets me as if we had known each other for a lifetime. I go towards Tony to take pictures of him in motion.
Together we pay a visit to his friend that offers me a cup of coffee. It’s unpolite to say no. But I really can’t drink it. So he offers me some prickly pears. I have never eaten them. If you have never eaten them, you must taste one! And he brings me a bowl full of prickly pears and tells me that I can eat them all if I wish. The prickly pear. I have seen so many of them these days. I have seen them changing from green to orange.
We smoked a cigarette together. We smoked another. They exchanged the last news. Tony’s friend explained to me his opinions about the world, war and economics. Tony told me that his wife doesn’t want to go out anymore. She used to go to the seaside during the past years, now she stays at home. She cooks. There are many people at home. There are my nephews, too. He looks at me and says: Ciao beautiful lady! Shall I go now?, I ask. No, it was only CIAO BEAUTIFUL LADY! Good morning good morning, I replied. We kept on chatting, until it was really time to say goodbye.
As I returned home, I thought of the familiarity of this road and its characters. Of the people I met. Of Tony. I know nothing about him, or nearly nothing. And yet it is as if we had known each other for a lifetime. Time would have done the rest. After leaving, I asked him if the following year he would be there, at the same hour. I am always here. He told me. Please God.