My friend F. gave me a ring two summers ago.
Even elegant Autumn stomped in this year, perhaps sensing that subtlety was wasted on us. The bay tree on our balcony is waterlogged, the French windows are streaked with rain, the East Anglian sky is a drama of shapeshifting charcoal clouds and the gale is bullying the delicate leaves of my young olive tree.
F. and I first met in Autumn 1986, queueing with other first-year undergraduates outside the Anglo-American lecturer’s door, at Rome University. One woman was complaining about her fingernails chipping despite the various products she applied to them.
“Just take some vitamins.”
Short, to the point, sensible. Almost imperceptibly impatient.
I turned to agree and saw F.
We were both starting university a little late, at twenty-one. Both Roman-born. Both Italian – she by blood, me by adoption.
What kind of winter is heralded by this brash, uncouth autumn? Will it give way to a winter cloaked in pandemic that will sweep over the country further, sowing more destruction in its wake or does its brusqueness conceal a desire to clear the putrid air we have created over the past few years and cleanse us before the season for soul-searching, dreaming and seeding? Is this second lockdown a way of forcing us to practise introspection?
We talked, we went out for pizzas, then ice-creams at Giolitti’s. Then she would take me home in her Fiat Panda, stopping to take in the view from the Gianicolo and driving over the cobbles of a Saint Peter’s Square floodlit in gold, across the unashamedly magnificent Eternal City.
We were both restless and cast our glances abroad. I thought we would leave together but when the moment came, she stayed. “This is my home,” she said.
I had yet to find my home, so I wandered away to England. It was my father’s land. “Maybe that’s enough to make it my home,” I said.
“You’ll need a fashionable Italian coat,” she replied and took me to Max Mara on Via del Tritone (you could still afford a Max Mara coat, back then). It was a forest-green coat, cut Italian-style but with English duffle toggles. A hybrid, like me.
In this all-permeating uncertainty and anxiety, in this world turned upside down, where the very concept of normality is challenged at every corner, the darkness is palpable. It’s oppressive, deceitful, ruthless. It lies in wake, ready to pounce. Only it doesn’t really pounce like a tiger, challenging you to a fair fight. Instead, it penetrates your pores insidiously. It then whispers in your ear that the sun is black, that the moon is made of base metal, and that joy is a thing for the deluded. Until you’re afraid to breathe.
I made a kind of home in England. Whenever I return to Rome, F. and I hug and talk and walk on the sampietrini cobbles. In the post-9/11 world, cars are no longer allowed in Saint Peter’s Square but she still drives me to see the view from the Gianicolo after we’ve had ice-cream at Giolitti’s. Over the years, I have watched her grow, learn and become wise. We are different and don’t agree on everything but I know that if ever I were in need, F. would drop everything and rush to me. She was a bridesmaid at my first wedding. When she met my second husband, H., she welcomed him with unreserved warmth, as though she had known him for as long as I had.
On top of this pandemic, will we really have a period of food and medicine shortages in January, once Brexit severs us from Europe definitively? Will flights really be grounded for a while and will we really become an island not just geologically and geographically but also mentally and emotionally?
For a few years now, F. and I have taken to giving each other a piece of jewellery whenever I go and visit. H. and I were having dinner with her and her family in a trattoria, two summers ago, in the lilac Roman dusk. She gave me a citrine quartz ring. I gave a small gasp. I was sure it wouldn’t fit: I have large hands and even my wedding band had to be made to a man’s size. Moreover, I feared it was too glamorous for me. A silver ring with two small, embossed silver flowers that hold two large, pear-shaped, diamond-cut citrines in a diagonal. A ring that glittered proudly, unafraid to be noticed. Surprisingly, it fit my ring finger perfectly. I still haven’t got around to asking F. how she knew my size. Or that citrine was my favourite stone. I kept the ring on for the rest of the evening, mentally deciding that it would step out of its box only on super-dressing-up occasions. Only these are few and far between: I live in Norwich. I wore the citrine ring for the rest of our holiday, sometimes on my right hand, sometimes on my left, over my gold wedding band. I enjoyed moving my finger and watching the diamond facets flare up in a soft, lemon-gold glow, and the embossed silver flowers sparkle like small diamonds. I started to wonder why I was so afraid to be noticed. The more I wondered, the more I began to find the possibility of not being afraid of it and, on the contrary, embracing it, joyously seductive.
I continued to wear my ring after we returned to Norwich. Its yellow light would cheer me up when I felt lacklustre. Its unashamedly baroque splendour told me everything was possible, even to feel and be visible again.
I took the citrine ring out of its little box today. I hadn’t worn it for months. Lockdown can make you feel invisible even in your own eyes. My heart sank. The stones looked opaque and the silver rather grey. I left the ring in a solution of bicarbonate, vinegar and salt for a few minutes and this restored it to its rightful splendour. Splendour. I like this word. It talks of sunshine, of joy, of magnificence. Like unreserved, generous hospitality, a table brimming with food, like the first bars of Monteverdi’s Vespers or a field of sunflowers.
The gale is shaking the French windows and howling in the gaps. But I have amber fairy-lights on my wall and a candle on my table. It only takes a little light to frighten off the darkness and dissolve it inside and out.
The citrine ring is sparkling on my finger. What were you thinking? it says. Don’t you remember that the sun is magnificent gold and the moon a splendid silver?
Of course. I’d forgotten. Splendour. I allow it in and start to breathe again. Joy. I feel cleaner, clearer, more hopeful. And that feels truly magnificent.