Some stories follow you until you tell them. And if you resist (because you think that it is not your story to tell), they nag and haunt you demanding to come out, like a heartbroken lover who doesn’t care whether his love is reciprocated because he cannot but love. For some stories being told is the only destiny. I think that one of those stories has been following me.
It has now been three months that I have been waiting. Waiting for it to go away. If I ignore it, I might forget it (I didn’t), and even now that I have finally decided to let it out, I have the feeling that it might just be the beginning. The peculiar thing is this is not even a story, just something that I witnessed and that touched me.
Three months ago I was in Cagliari, my hometown in Italy. I had noticed the man begging in the old part of town, where my family home is. Filthy, thin, with long sticky hair, in tattered clothing. He was wearing layers of stuff of unrecognisable colour, the pants torn on one side, from the waist down, so that when he walked they parted completely, revealing a white skinny leg. I had noticed him around the market, several times, and then again the morning that I was leaving.
I was leaving to come back to Australia. Leaving is always sad, and it gets only more difficult every time. I was rushing quickly to the chemist for some creme to cure a cold sore before catching my plane. I wasn’t in a good mood. When I saw him trying to talk to a woman a few steps in front of me, I walked faster to avoid him. He tried to engage my eyes, I avoided him, determined not to be bothered. It’s only when I turned into the stairs that take to the small piazza in front of the market that I felt pain and shame inside. I felt heavyhearted, as if the sadness of that morning (sadness at leaving my mother, sadness at not knowing whether it would have been the last time I was going to see her, sadness for the condition very well known to those living in a place different from the one in which they grew up) could disappeared if I only went back to that man.
I turned around, while grabbing all the change I could find inside my bag, fighting an overwhelming sense of despair. He looked surprised when he saw me coming back. I had the money in my hand and when he stretched his hand, I took it between mine, holding it my hands for a couple of seconds. That’s when I realised that just like his face, hair and clothes, his bare feet, everything about him was filthy, hard and unrecognisable, his hands were soft and incredibly clean, and what was even more surprising, he had long, immaculate fingernails. Still holding his hands I said ‘Take care’ (no idea why I said it in English). He replied with a pleasant, modulated voice without accent ‘Grazie signora’. On my way back from the chemist he wasn’t there any more. I left a couple of hours later.
This is three months ago. I have been thinking often about his hands and his voice since. I wonder what is his story, how he ended up the way he did. I’d like to sit down with him to ask him, but then I feel morbid and patronising. Then I think that I’d like to tell his story, and then that his story probably is not mine to tell. I haven’t got an answer yet.