Monday, October 9, 2017

Home by Josephine Bruni

On the day of the EU referendum an Italian barista in the vibrant Camden Lock area of London muses on his status as an outsider; by Josephine Bruni.

The coffee shop was very trendy. It looked like a warehouse with rough wooden planks as seats and tables, cardboard boxes filling the shelves that ran around the walls, big, professional coffee machines worth hundreds of pounds shining amongst stylish coffee cups and colourful mocha. It was said that it made the best coffee in North London and Marco was one of those who made it happen. It was a repetitive chore. Grind the beans, twist the percolator, press the hot water button, steam the milk, clean the steamer. Marco produced one drink after the other, immersed in Anya's musky perfume that blended perfectly with the bitter aroma of Arabic coffee. She had the beauty of youth, soft features and wide lips. Hot, not so hot, small, less water. More milk thank you, no foam, more foam. Sometimes in the queue a friendly face said 'buongiorno' and chatted a little. Marco acknowledged their kindness with an extra hole in their loyalty card. Not everyone was for Brexit, he told Anya.

An espresso with hot milk on the side and an Americano with cold milk on the side; a hot chocolate not too hot and a glass of water. Thank you. And Marco answered prego most of the time because he thought in Italian. He wiped the counter, emptied the dishwasher, swept the floor. Anya moved around the small space behind the counter with the elegant agility of a green grass snake. She was Polish and had a degree in history which had turned out to be useless in England. As the shop grew quieter she chatted to a woman with a little dog who licked Anya's fingers and wagged his short tail. The woman held Anya's hand for a moment.

"I will vote against Brexit," she said.

"They won't win. Will they?" asked Anya.

"Of course not," said an Englishman behind them. "You have nothing to worry about. England needs the Europeans. Besides, there are thousands of British people living in Europe. They've taken over entire villages. What would happen to them?"

Marco thought of his village back home. It was beautiful, spilling over the cusp of a pointed hill, its rooftops the colour of wholesome cream. It was a very old village and some of the houses were ruins swarming with cats.

"I live four months of the year in Italy," the Englishman went on. His perfectly white hair suited his face, giving it an aura of wisdom and character. "I love it, the food, the stylish people. And the Italians make great neighbours."

"Nothing will change, don't worry," the woman told Anya.

At mid morning Marco went outside to smoke. Across the street a homeless man lived his days lying on an old mattress, surrounded by tattered suitcases overflowing with clothes and other rags salvaged on the day of his eviction. Paper cups and old newspapers were scattered around him. The empty shop behind him had sheets of torn paper on the dusty windows making the corner bleak and unwelcoming.

Marco crossed the road with a self confident sway. His cheap clothes hung on him neatly. A fine annoying rain wet his head, dripped along his gentle profile. He had nothing to offer the man but a cigarette. They lit up and the smoke surrounded them, softly rolling in the air heavy with pollution. Marco squatted beside the man. In front of him, the leftovers of a Thai takeaway spilt on the pavement. There was an open packet of crackers to keep it company and two apples in a see-through bag looking lonely and forgotten. Marco smelt the raw odour of wet, dirty clothes and cold runner beans.

"What is it that you are reading, Daniele?" Marco asked the man in Italian.

Daniele lifted his book and showed the cover, a nineteenth century portrait of the great Italian poet, Ugo Foscolo, whose dark eyes seemed to look at Marco, speaking of exile and the torturous pain of a rootless life.

"He died in London," said Daniele.

"I know. He was so poor that he had to change his name to hide from his debtors. Poetry doesn't pay."

"It doesn't. But it consoles me when there is nowhere else to go."

People came and went on the busy high street. It was summer but the sky was dark. A light constrained behind the clouds burst through their linings with vivid strength. The trees, thick with green, rustled in the cool breeze.

"They are going to deport me," said Daniele.

"They can't do that! You're European."

Daniele looked at Marco without fear. He had an intelligent face with thick, dark eyebrows and a black beard. He wore a winter jacket and a black woolly hat. It was cold and damp down there on the ground.

"They are not waiting for Brexit," he said. "The likes of me are surplus in this society. They don't need me. Who does? I'm a burden even to myself. Weeks go by and nobody says my name. I am at risk of forgetting it."

Marco finished his cigarette and threw it in the street. It was time to go back to work but he found it difficult to leave Daniele. "What are you going to do in Italy? Have you got any relatives there who can help you?"

"No. I'm not going back to the village. The shame is too much. I'm going to Reggio. The church will help me. Hopefully. One day I might get a job and somewhere to live. You can come and visit."

Marco thought of Reggio. People down there were warm and compassionate but the town was full of immigrants ready to work for nothing, happy to have survived killer journeys across the sea.

Daniele put down his book, worn out like him. "Did you read what they say of me in the paper? 'The sad and revolting spectacle of a man living on a heap of rubbish.' 'Revolting', Marco. That's what I am now. I feel like a worm trying to dig his way out of stone. I should kill myself but I am not that noble. Neither was Foscolo but at least he wrote wonderful verses and made a name for himself in Italy."

"When he was dead," said Marco.

If he were Jesus he would have told Daniele to get up and walk. But where to?

Marco had to go. He left feeling that a part of him stayed with Daniele, lying on a filthy mattress, with a dead poet as his only company.

The time went by quickly that day as the shop slowly filled up. Saucers slid on the counter and drinks were made with perfect gestures, without losing a second of time in useless moves. There was a lot of talk of the Referendum and Marco restrained himself more than once, as Brexiteers brought forth their theories. The dishwasher steamed, the coffee machine steamed and Marco steamed with them. He left the shop around seven, after cleaning, checking the till, noting how much coffee had been used. Anya helped. They talked about the weather, wet and grey. Then they left each other with a hug and a brotherly kiss on both cheeks.

Daniele was still in his place, reading 'The Last Letters Of Iacopo Ortis'. Marco lifted a hand to salute him then walked off, pulling up the hood of his jacket. Marco was never going to be English no matter how hard he tried. First of all there was the accent that added vowels to the end of words that in English weren't there. Then there was his dark hair, his dark eyes and a look of dreamy sensuality that lingered on his Mediterranean features. His fellow countrymen had been around London since Roman times, he thought. As a matter of fact they had founded the place but he was still a foreigner and always would be. He realized suddenly that he could be deported. He stared into space, with his fists buried deeply in the pockets of his worn out jeans .

The rain swished around the wheels of passing cars and hit the top of buses carrying people home from work. The polling stations would soon fill up. On his way to Camden Town, Marco passed the trendy pubs full of young professionals talking loudly and drinking beer and wine from shiny glasses. The area was quickly becoming gentrified. Soon the rooms would cost more. Some young men working in shops had to share a room.

In Camden, more of the homeless sat in doorways with mattresses and old blankets. A busker sang something melodic into a microphone. His voice reverberated along the walls, climbing up towards a purple sky. A man selling sugar coated nuts looked dejected as his merchandise got wet. He too was a foreigner, a Romanian maybe.

Marco took shelter in a supermarket. It was a huge thing, like a spaceship ready to leave the earth for another planet. The self service machines gave orders and said goodbye. The aisles were full of white light and endless rows of goods. The rich West never ran out of food, nor of water as a matter of fact. Marco wondered if people in Africa knew about people like him living in a box and working ten hours a day to buy ready meals and clothes made by children.

The queue at the till was long. It always was at that time of day. Marco bought his Chicken Korma and some fruit, sour grapes and rock hard peaches. He couldn't help thinking that at least in Italy the poor could still afford a decent peach.

He lived on the second floor of a rundown maisonette just behind the famous Camden Lock. From his window he saw a small garden with overgrown ivy smothering an old oak like a lustful lover. A couple of chairs under the tree had lost their veneer, turning from green to a light blue. Marco too had changed colour since he had moved to London.

He lay on the bed with his hands behind his back. His clothes were damp and his feet hurt. He was young. Twenty four years of age. He turned to look at the picture of his family on the wall. His father's face was deeply lined by years of working under the sun or against a fierce winter wind. His wife helped him tend to the olive trees and the tomatoes. She was a woman with large hips and her back was strong from generations of bending over the land. Marco's little sister, fourteen years of age, looked tanned and bursting with health, but also a bit lost as if something was happening to her that she didn't quite understand. She wanted to come to London.

"Will you help me?" she'd asked him last time he'd visited.

It was not going to happen. He didn't want her to have a life like his. And there was Brexit. If Britain left the EU Marco would become an economic migrant. Would there be a sea to cross for him too?

He poured himself a glass of Italian wine. It was his treat. The smell reminded him of the village bar where men shouted over card games that were a war of wills, where cheating was a question of pride and finding out was too. A torrent cut the village in half and a slender Roman bridge joined the two parts. Children picked fights over which one of the parts was braver, older, less stupid. As men they took part in tournaments; competing with crossbows and heavy arrows that split the hard wood of the targets. Marco tried his best to go back to the village every year. His friends had never really forgiven him for going away. "Still working in a coffee shop?" some asked him, with contempt. Those words stuck to his memory like the bite of a hornet and so did that underlining question: "Why did you really leave?"

Marco had broken his mother's heart. He had a degree, he could have taught in the local school, she'd said. It was a good job with a standing in the community.

He was the first to go to university in his family. He knew everything of the Italian poets but all that didn't matter one bit in the coffee shop.

Never again shall I touch the sacred home

Where once my small boyish body found repose

Foscolo had died in London, impoverished and forgotten. Daniele's mattress would get wet, thought Marco. His feet were sore because he never took off his shoes.

"They are good shoes," he'd told Marco. "If they steal them I'm finished."

Marco had wondered who 'they' were.

"The scavengers of the streets. They stole my food yesterday."

Marco ate his meal and switched on the TV. The number one Brexiteer was spitting in the face of three million Europeans who called England their home. Many had children who were British. Marco asked himself if they were being bullied at school now that all that hatred had been stirred up. He switched off the TV and went back out.

He walked towards the canal. It could be dangerous at dark but he had nothing of value to be stolen and he was beyond worrying that day. He thought of another populist of the Brexit movement. He had a half smile always on his face and a contempt for everything left wing. "The poor are such because they are stupid," he'd said and Marco had thought of those words every time he counted the pennies in his pocket; every time he ate bread and butter for dinner.

He walked past the colourful boats and the small bridges cast over the dark water like arms around a friend. They spoke of times gone by when the canals were used as waterways for a country that still produced merchandise and not services. The great factories were now shut. The English poor hadn't got much to look forward to as they grew up and fell into a system of economic torture: where benefits came with sanctions and destitution was the norm from father to son. They still paid for inspiring Marx.

A boat glided by with geraniums on its deck. Jazz music, coming from the lit up interior, filled the air with expectations of quiet, friendly love. They were enjoying a wholesome meal there, thought Marco. He too had friends but that evening he wanted to be alone and think. What if he really went back to Italy? He could teach history to the young ones, tell them about the war and the resistance, about the Red Brigades. But there was no place for Marco in Italy. No money. A friend of his had gone back and was still waiting for a job after eleven months. And the poor weren't treated any better there, he thought. There was no one left to speak up for them. Thousands of people killed themselves in Italy every year, many, owners of small businesses, pressurized by taxes and bureaucracy. The bereaved wives of hundreds of men marched under of the name of 'White Widows'. Their stories were harrowing, their courage immense. Marco walked into a pub and spent his last pounds on a tall, cold beer.

Next morning he switched on the TV as soon as he woke up. Britain had left Europe. A heaviness fell on his shoulders and hunched them. He was filled with dread. He left his room in a hurry. He didn't want to be late, to leave Anya alone at the counter. He thought of her big eyes full of melancholy, of her hands red from soap and water.

As Marco walked towards the shop he thought he could distinguish the Brexiteers by their demeanour, by an aura of anger that set them apart from other Londoners. A man with suit and tie, holding a case of documents, talking on the phone, a big smile on his face; a woman with heavy lips and a limp, holding onto her trolley; a drunk with no front teeth and dirty trousers, walking fast with the smug expression of someone who had been given power to hit back at poverty and powerlessness. Maybe Marco was imagining all these things, he told himself, as Brexit thrust him into paranoia.

Anya was behind the counter looking abashed. Fear and confusion disturbed her gentle features.

"What's going to happen?" she asked Marco.

"I wish I could tell you."

"I am not a foreigner. I pay taxes. I do shopping and take buses. They can't send me away. I am here now." Anya's voice was softer that morning as if she had been crying. "It hurts, you know, here in my heart. I feel betrayed and used. Yet I have never felt so European as I have today."

"What have we done to our grandchildren?" said the Englishman with the perfect white hair. His face was pale, his lip shook. "They have taken away our heart. I am so sorry."

"Who's going to make their coffees and clean their toilets?" asked Anya.

"Other people, poorer than us," said Marco. "With no rights at all."

That day Marco made his coffees with more energy than usual. He huffed often and he almost banged the cups on the wooden counter. He thought of the 'White Widows' and their marches; he thought of his father and the calluses on his hands; the empty place at the table where his son should be sitting for Sunday meals. Marco wanted children but how was that going to happen? He couldn't even offer them the right passport. He had a break at mid morning for his usual cigarette. He faced the old carpet shop with a sunken heart. The mattress and the bags were gone. Daniele had been removed.

5 comments:

  1. a powerful and moving response to the madness of Brexit. totally credible and well drawn characters.
    really fine piece of work
    Mike McC

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  2. Heartbreaking - beautifully crafted writing that honours what it is to be human. Very many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  3. A thoughtful reflection of time and place. Time elegantly depicted in the activities of the coffee house '...without losing a second of time in useless moves...' Place; the alien quality of the supermarket, and trapped in time are Anya Marco, and Daniele who like his mentor Foscolo just disappears.
    B r o o k e

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  4. Critique by George T. Philibin


    A compelling story that points toward Donald Trump and his theories on immigration. I live in
    America, and the story could have been set in Boston or New York, and Marco I know—at least in many Mexicans that I encounter.

    The writing was more narration then showing but it worked very well. Interior thoughts and feelings often show how life can turn into confusion and the more we live the deeper the confusion washes over us.

    I enjoyed this story very much and an glad that I joined this site. I usually write and read sci-fi, but find that pure fiction is also pleasant and inspiring.

    A well written story that can be seen in today’s headlines.

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  5. A lot of people probably think an Italian man in London would living it up, this story tore down the facade. Gives the feeling of a world losing its flexibility.

    ReplyDelete