And so it was that I went on reading, Vecchietta – reading to learn, reading to improve my English but most of all, reading to find, as you had once told me I would, that I was not alone in my sorrow – that others had experienced what I was feeling, lived through grief and regret and found their way through it.

I did not go to your funeral, Vecchietta – I knew you wouldn't have wanted me to, for you always said that love should be shown towards the living. But I knew that, one day, I had to go to England, to embrace the land that had made you, to understand what had drawn you back to it and finally, to talk to your sister.

She and your brother-in-law were not particularly pleased to see me but they were hospitable and polite. It was far more than I deserved. I saw the garden your room had overlooked, I heard the raindrops on the window and remembered you saying that people would come from all over the world to see sparrows if they were rare. Well, this Sicilian came, Vecchietta.

On my last day there your sister's green eyes, so like yours, looked into mine as she asked,

“Did you love her?”

“Yes”, I said, for I could not hide the truth from her as I had from you. Then she said she would take me somewhere.

We went to the crematorium where your ashes had been scattered, Vecchietta. It was new for me as there are only two crematoria in Sicily, one in Palermo and now a new one in Messina. I remember that you were shocked when you read that the Palermo crematorium is often closed because it's not working properly but to me this seemed perfectly normal.

“You Sicilians, you even have to have pazienza when you're dead!” was your comment.

But few Sicilians choose cremation at the end, though the Roman Catholic Church doesn't frown on it any more.

You, of course, were not there in that quiet garden and you had once told me about a visit you had made to the London garden of remembrance where your parents' ashes had been scattered so long ago. You'd said you had realised their spirits were not in a physical place but in your own heart, wherever you were. And it was that thought which had enabled you to leave everything and come to live in my country.

I also saw, in that peaceful place, the benches that people had donated in memory of loved ones, so that lost souls like me could sit and remember, as I was doing that day. There they all were, hundreds of garden benches with bronze memorial plaques, the dead bringing a little comfort to those left behind. And then I knew what I needed to do.

I finished making my white bench today, Vecchietta. It has no plaque, for you would have diapproved of that. The wood is smooth and as I run my hand over it, for some reason I think of how I ran my fingers over the palm of your hand the day I told you our affair was over. But I remember happy moments, too – cooking together, Monte degli Agrumi, English lessons, coffee and tiramisù.

Now I am growing older myself, Vecchietta: my son is becoming a man and I'm encouraging him to read in the hope that he will not be afraid of his feelings like his father. My daughter has become a beautiful young woman and if any man does to her what I did to you – or so much as makes her shed a tear – I, Cicciu the carpenter, will kill him, Vecchietta.

Life, as you British say, must go on and I will try to be happy because you wanted it, Vecchietta: I continue to cook with spices, as you taught me, I smile at the Sicilian idiosyncracies in which you found so much humour and I laugh at myself. I can almost hear you saying,

“Look at Cicciu there! A memorial for me and it's for him to park his arse on!”

And I fancy I can see your green eyes sparkle and hear you roaring with laughter.

But I also cry, Vecchietta: here, on your bench in my garden, I sit in the evenings, read and even find myself talking to the few sparrows that visit me. And I, Cicciu the carpenter, who did not even cry for my own brother, cry for you, my Vecchietta.

The end


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