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The oranges of Dubai, Page 1

Quelli di ZEd

Cristina Costa

  The oranges of Dubai

  Translation from Italian to English by

  Carmelo Massimo Tidona

  for Zed Lab

  The oranges of Dubai

  Copyright © 2012 Zerounoundici Edizioni

  ISBN: 978-88-6578-145-6

  Cover Image:

  To Francesco Fausto, Claudia and Adriano

  the most beautiful pages of my history

  To Giuseppe

  For all the road we have travelled together

  and for that still to be travelled.

  "Sicily and its scholars

  lived in the shade of a fresh life of delights

  safety had stretched there its veils,

  and its fame

  went for the world in caravans;

  feared its warriors,

  famous its men of the pen.

  But they were not thankful to God

  of the grace they were granted

  and instead of sweet water

  they got salt"

  (Yahya Ibn Al-Katani)

  Chapter 1

  We are about to reach the Falcone Borsellino airport in Palermo. A metallic and monotonous voice announces this in French at first – because it is on a French airline that we’re flying – then in Arab and eventually in Italian. An single long emission of breath; words, following one another without neither pauses nor inflexions, announce that the temperature is twenty-seven degrees, the sky is very clear, and in less than five minutes we will land. Instinctively I look out of the porthole looking for an edge of Sicilian coast. But there’s just the sea stretching as far as the eye can see. I wait to catch on the horizon a glimpse of the rocky shore going from Punta Raisi toward Palermo, softly descending to leave room to long sandy shores. I was born and lived my teen years in this part of Sicily. But it was a long time ago.

  We are suspended an inch from the water, a dark and immense expanse close under us, no trace of the runway. A certain restlessness quickly crosses my bowel, but it is an elusive feeling that disperses a few instants later in a reassuring memory: the landing in Palermo is always like that, when the impact with the sea seems inevitable and the fear insinuates the mind, shaping catastrophic ghosts, the solid asphalt runway timely appears, compact and marvellously vital.

  I turn to look at my wife. On her face my same sighs, her memories intact as if just a few days had passed from our last flight above this sea. Marco and Giuliana, our children, two rows in front of us, seem excited at the sight of the nothingness under them. It is theirs first time in Sicily. With her hands around her mouth forming a megaphone, Giuliana keeps on repeating, snickering, «Someone should warn the commander that we are falling».

  She says this in her perfect French, impeccable for the pronunciation, for the rounded and sweet r, for the delicate intonation. A purity that my French – a mixture of languages and intonations that I made mine in the years – lacks. Marco, holding tight the armrests with his hands, tells her, «Shut up stupid, don’t you see there really is something wrong. It’s flying too low, where is the runway?»

  The flight attendant, who heard them talking, approaches and reassures them with a textbook smile.

  «Everything is under control, you can rest assured. Is it the first time that you come to Palermo?»

  His French is an airline French, like his uniform and everything else.

  «Yes. It’s the first time.»

  With the same boldness of a native speaker, Giuliana is now speaking in Italian, in an equally delicate and fluid, but strongly French way. Then, starting over laughing, she adds, «Provided that we get there!»

  Marco places an elbow in her side, and with a dry "now stop it" he puts an end to the brief conversation. The assistant, his airline smile still on his face, approaches me to address me a thanking. Shortly after the take-off, a passenger felt sick, and when the crew asked if there was a physician on board, I diligently stepped forward to handle the emergency. A sudden and acute pain in the arm and breast in a seventy-year-old man suffering of high-blood pressure. I am a heart surgeon and my job follows me in the air as well, it seems. A steward reaches us and informs me on the current conditions of my patient.

  «There is an ambulance waiting for Mr. Catalano on the runway, fortunately his conditions have stabilized and now he’s calmer.»

  They both walk away, in their uniforms without wrinkles, to carry out the last procedures before the landing: checking the hatboxes, smiling here and there, reminding to fasten seat belts, have any device switched off and so forth. They eventually disappear behind the curtain separating us from the cockpit. At that point I am sure that we are landing even though, looking outside, you could not say that yet.

  Teresa has closed her eyes and, with her head stuck to the back of the seat, she’s waiting to feel the ground under her feet, so to speak. She hates landing, the hard impact with the runway, the screech of the brakes, the jolts, the feeling that the airplane is accelerating its run rather than slowing it down. She holds my hand without realizing the intensity of her grip, then, when the plane starts stopping and the tension dissolves, she loosens it and justifies herself.

  «Sorry, it’s uncontrollable.»

  Then she fades away behind her large sunglasses with dark lenses that shelter her from embarrassment, because she doesn't like to appear weak.

  Many years ago, when an airplane landed in Palermo, at the same moment when the cart grazed the asphalt, an applause of relief dissolved the anxiety of the passengers in a sort of collective ritual. I know this from the stories of my grandfather. Already when I was boy there was no more trace of this ritual. I never found it in any of the several stopovers in which I transited in my life. It was an instant of celebration, an aggregating ritual, a first taste of genuine Sicilian folklore, rejoicing, noisy. Everyone participated, some clapping their hands with strength, saying "good commander", others who instead, not to show that they had been afraid, just nodded, thanking who was in the sky and who had rested the airplane on the ground. Today there are no applauses for the commander after this landing, but a composed and multilingual chattering.

  Here we are, finally; the crew disarms the slides and prepares for the final greeting. The commander is ready for the leaving ritual, the flight attendants distribute the last smiles for all. When it is my turn, the commander in person stops me and, like at least half of his crew has already one, renews the thanking for the help lent to that passenger.

  «My duty», I hear myself say.

  But I am distracted, I am already thinking about my sky waiting for me beyond the hatch and about my air that soon I will breathe, after thirty long years.

  And here they are, appearing around me, catapulting me in my old world. The sky is of such an intense blue that it mortifies everything else. The sun welcomes me, wrapping me up in a warm embrace, and the same sea that just a few minutes ago awed me, now flutters in the air, transported by a light breeze that tastes of salt.

  I am in Palermo again!

  A stretcher-bearer, at the end of the ramp, helps Mr. Catalano to sit on a wheelchair that will bring him to the ambulance, parked under the left wing of the plane. Before the doors close again on him, I see my patient shake a hand toward me with a smile. There is suffering on his pale and wrinkled face. His elderly wife, at his side, joins in the greeting, waved with fingers full of cortisone like all of her body. She has a soft, olive face, framed by a too compact and dark wig that makes her ridiculous. It is a depressing mask. I imagine she’s back from a trip in search of hope, looking for specialized cares for her canc
er. I read worry and pain on the face of that poor man, the same one that compresses the face of the parents of my little patients. Encourage, pretend to be serene, unreasonably optimist, although you’re carrying in your heart a truth without hope, that is the hard task of the family members. Most succeeds well enough. They become skilled in lying to protect, but then a sudden yielding, like the sickness of my passenger, make their unstable scaffolding stagger, revealing the awful weight of what can’t be said. "The illness reached a terminal stage by now; unfortunately there is not a lot that can be done, except starting a pain therapy to ease the suffering of your wife." I am sure that this is what poor Mr. Catalano heard the oncologist say. And it is under the echo of these words that his precarious heart failed. In the same way, ten years ago, Parisian physicians talked to my father. In his case they were his legs to yield, making him fall down the stairs of the oncology wing and earning him some fractured ribs.

  There is a big shouting of the flight mates around me, but those are indistinct voices that I perceive without listening to them. The only clear voice comes from inside.

  "Welcome back home Paolo."

  I stagger between the curiosity to discover the changes of this world to which I belonged and the desire to turn my back and go away, without getting tangled up in this uncertain adventure. A lot of things have changed since the last time I was here. Improvements, according to many, but not everybody agrees. I preferred to keep my memories intact, interposing thousands of kilometres between me and my past, cutting bridges, interrupting contacts. I sealed a door, believing that I would never open it again. I did that because I was a young man going to conquer the world, because I preferred my future to that of my country, because in order to go far I had to abandon the ship before it sank with all of its crew. I’m coming back today, fifty-years old by now, as a tourist, as a foreigner in my own country. I have been that since when, exactly thirty-two years ago, Sicily left politically and geographically the borders of the Italian State, sold to the best bidder.

  I keep on following the orderly line of passengers leaving the aircraft, wishing that my thoughts were as orderly, instead they get confused at every step, oscillating between the desire to go on and that to go back to Paris fast.

  What am I doing here after all this time? What am I expecting? What expects me?

  The answer is all in a name, Teresa.

  She struggled a lot to organize this trip. She started almost one year ago. Secretly, by the way. She wanted it to be a surprise for me. In a few days, in fact, I will be half a century old.

  «As a present, since we haven't indulged in a nice holiday for some time, we could make a trip. The whole family together», my Teresa told me on a September evening.

  We were in the study of our house, with me working on the opening speech of the annual conference on the treatment of the congenital heart diseases in premature babies. Even if I could not forget my planner, chock full of appointments, the idea really allured me. I often travel for business, rarely for leisure. Sometimes my wife comes with me. While I am at conferences, she is a tourist. We part in the morning, after a quick breakfast, and meet again almost at dusk, I exhausted, she full of stories, of exciting places to describe, of sweatshirts and t-shirts for our children. She knows all of the European capitals much better than me who, even though I have been there so many times, mostly visited airports, hotels and congress rooms.

  I like her vitality; when we meet again at the hotel, she only grants me the time of a shower and then she brings me to have supper in a restaurant she eyed in the centre during her tour.

  It’s true, anyway. For too long we haven’t travelled all together for a real vacation. The last time was when Marco was six years old, Giuliana two years older. Teresa had been dreaming for some time to go to Moscow.

  «I would like to walk in the Red Plaza, to skate on the ice rink, breathe the icy cold of the Muscovite winter.»

  Apart from this last aspect, which gave us serious trouble, it was a beautiful vacation for all of us. And so last September, acting in remarkable advance, my wife got busy organizing a trip to celebrate my fiftieth birthday.

  «We could choose an organized trip in the main European capitals. It might also be useful for Giuliana, since she made up her mind a long time ago that she wants to go and live in Japan, who knows why. Maybe, getting to know Europe better, she would find out that here too there are quite remarkable cities where to get a proper education and spend satisfactorily one’s existence.»

  Here is my Teresa; she started with the idea of organizing something for me, but she couldn’t resist the temptation to cut it out on the needs of our children. It always happens this way. When I point that out, she tries to amend, «It’s just that I like to have everyone agree, you know how I am».

  Of course I do; we have been married for too long for me not to realize it. I put my report aside and pitch a proposal, «We could go to the beach, neither stress nor schedules, visits or weary queues».

  I thought that my idea would be dismisses in a hurry, instead my wife seemed to wait for these words, in order to detail a carefully prepared plan.

  «I told you that I am on Facebook, didn’t I?»

  I nodded.

  «Do you remember Anna Marino?»

  It seemed to me that I had lost the thread of our conversation, but I would find it again a few sentences later.

  «Anna who?»

  The expression on my face must have communicated her a lot of uncertainty, because she started a detailed description in the hope of awakening some memory in me. And actually, while she was talking, red curls and freckles spread on a quite awkward body came to my mind. A seventeen-year-old girl. Timid, a bit embarrassed, with her eyes always down, rarely pointed at other eyes. But in class she was a legend, the best; along with me, modestly. Anna, I remember her! Scientific high school Galilei in Palermo, in the years from 2011 to 2016, first central line, always in pole position in front of the teachers.

  «Well,» Teresa tells me in a crescendo of enthusiasm, «I found her on Facebook, with the help of Giuliana, because, as you know, I am not very good in moving in virtual networks. It was exciting. I got nostalgia of the old times, after all she sat next to me in school, we were great friends. And so the idea was born».

  «Which idea?» I asked her with the most professional of tones.

  I started listening with the maximum concentration, the same one I use when my colleagues come to submit some new case to my attention. When my wife says that she’s got an idea, I know that it is better not to underestimate it.

  «One day I told her that I would like to meet her, after all these years, and we started day-dreaming, you know how women are, and our idea took shape. At first we have thought about contacting all our classmates who, like us, don't live in Palermo anymore. You know that I don't love much Facebook, but I have to say that in this case it was an invaluable resource. A kind of chain started and in the end, although it wasn’t easy, we found almost everyone. Many of them liked the idea of a sort of reunion, so we thought it was better to immediately decide an occasion, before the enthusiasm was lost. But as soon as it came to deciding when, the true problem were me and you, rather than the others, because with your business engagements it is difficult to program a departure.»

  She made a pause, in which I perceive her intent to underline the perennial difficulty of my family to make whatever kind of plan because of my continuous absences.

  «So, since in May you will be fifty, I thought that it might be the right occasion, and perhaps the only feasible one.»

  She stopped and looked at me with an interrogative expression. Trailing dots rained on me in a silence that demanded some reaction from my side.

  «Doctor, what do you think of it?»

  It was her to break the silence, while I, eyes lowered on the monitor of my laptop, didn't know what to answer.

  I was still not entirely satisfied of the layout of my report; for days I had had in mind a series of
changes to make, but I never found the time to do that. That evening I had dined in a hurry in order to immediately start the job and I had not foreseen any interruption. We would be able to talk about that again tomorrow, I thought, but her eyes would not accept a delay. She couldn’t always wait in queue. And I perfectly realized that.

  «But the sea, the relax under the beach umbrella? It seems to me that we are speaking of a totally different thing.»

  «Maybe you forgot that Sicily is surrounded by the sea, therefore it won't be difficult to find a beach, right, doctor? We can go to Torre. I know that the beach is more beautiful than you can remember it. Everything is different, now. You will like it.»

  Everything is different, I knew that. And it was exactly the reason why I was afraid of this trip. I left my house, my people, the place in which I had grown, my nationality. My father thought that life is a one-way road, therefore you can’t turn back. It would be like trying to put a clock back again. You can't live the same moment twice.

  But my wife flooded me with information, convinced that I would not be disappointed. She overwhelmed me with stories, also involving Giuliana, who said she was curious to know more about the history of our family. Go figure! I felt compressed between their chatters and the report that waited for me to complete it in time for the now imminent conference.

  So I found myself allowing her to organize everything. That she do as she pleased; I trust her proposals, they are what always gave structure and direction to our family.

  And so here I am, eight months later, on this ramp, a few days before my birthday and a few kilometres from Torre dell’Isola, my native town, wondering whether, that evening in the end of September, I shouldn’t have closed the file and assessed Teresa’s proposal better.