I was little and I was fortunate. My brother, four years senior, regularly showed me the ways of the world and was intent on sharing the tricks he had discovered during his extra time on the planet.
Naturally, when starting school I looked to him for advice. How to navigate a strange new world of rules and unfamiliar routines. He obliged of course. Taking me kindly under his wing. In the first few weeks he showed me where to put my bag and how to make friends. Easy enough.
He also taught me about giving someone “the bird.” Sticking your middle finger up at someone was akin to giving a thumbs up – only more friendly.
His reasoning was simple, and logical, to the mind of a five year old.
“Your middle finger is longer than your thumb. So it’s like saying ‘good job’ – only nicer.”
Not long after that informal lesson, I sat diligently on the mat while my teacher drew a polar bear on the board. I could sense her apprehension and wanted to offer support. To say “good job” only nicer.
So when I was subsequently reprimanded by my teacher I felt confused. Misunderstood. And pissed off at my brother.
Gestures can be confusing – especially to the uninitiated.
And so it was on that gloriously sunny, East-Coast Sri Lankan day.
We required transportation at 1 o’clock. The driver shook his head – “OK.”
“2 o’clock?” My wife politely requested.
Another shake of the head. Another “OK.”
3 o’clock then? This time a subtle panic simmered.
More shaking. More OKs.
By this stage, I could barely contain my laughter. In these parts, a shake of the head means a different thing than at home. After all these years, I finally understood the pathetic glory my brother had enjoyed when I was five.
Laughter now poured from both the driver and myself.
Leaving my wife feeling confused, misunderstood and pissed off with me.
In the late afternoon, Alice would open the shutters wide and leave them askew until the last light had faded from her room. Not so much to let light in but the breeze. Two regular guests who entered and filled the mostly empty space. She preferred the breeze.
When she first arrived here, it would enter like a loving memory. Slowly dancing around her face and bare arms. A warming embrace. A rare comfort.
Now it enters abruptly – slicing her cheeks and cutting through her clothes. Bringing only a chill. Though she doesn’t mind. Unlike memories, no breeze can be felt twice.
Occasionally, Alice would stand at the ledge and look out at the steady flow of the Arno. The smooth, shimmering centre flowed serenely – allowing her mind to quieten. Inhale.
Before long, her eyes would inevitably be drawn to the rough water where shards of white were thrown abruptly about in sprays, churned by unseen forces. The memory of the stream will carry the memory of the obstacles below – whether or not they are seen from above. Exhale.
Alice turned away from the window. The breeze passed through her long dark hair and out. Free to grow and soar. Not everyone is afforded that luxury. Alice tried to attach her memories to the breeze, hoping a thought would weigh less than the wind.
Six months previously Alice pinned the same hope on a plane ticket. Purchased uncertainly. On credit. She fought against the plan. The ticket sat in a drawer in the second bedroom amongst tiny, unused socks. To rest with the dreams of another life.
When the day came to fly, Alice felt moved to float. To soar.
She retrieved the ticket and allowed loose fingers to brush tenderly against the cotton. Their impression remained on her hand as she closed the drawer and left her life behind.
This was the place where Alice could begin again. Where the river flowed and the breeze would cradle her like a mournful lover.
The warmth of the sun. The bite of the breeze. Each comforting thought was betrayed by a pang of guilt. Each wind sweep would leave her and drift on through the shutters. Leaving her to clutch the pain of loss at her breast.
Her only constant.