His favourite time was the winter.
In summer the city was white hot and gay. Each morning it emptied out onto its slim pebble beaches, citizens crowding into buses and washing away like a tide. They carried swimming things and folding chairs and beds and umbrellas and they set up camp in the stands of pine trees, or on the pavement above the sea, and the platforms raised at regular intervals and dedicated to sunbathing; these were called Topolino which meant ‘little mouse’ in Italian because from above they were shaped like a crouching mouse.
There was the busy coast road and then there was the pavement lined with sunbathing bodies and occasional trees and benches and every so often a raised Topolino. At each Topolino was a bus stop, and these stops were called Prima Topolino, Secondo Topolino …
The women sprayed themselves with oil and lay very still. The men hid under umbrellas and fell asleep, their mouths open, their hands empty, their ears dead to the sounds of traffic on the coast road.
In the sea large brown men from the Balkans stood nipple deep in the clear blue water. They wore heavy gold chains around their broad necks, their shoulders burst with ill gotten muscle. They stood still, rarely speaking, staring impassively into the beach as if waiting for trouble to arise. Their children and their wives played in the shallows.
He swam through the men and out into the deep water. He swam all the way to the orange bhouys which marked the end of the swimming and kept out the kayakers and the skullers. He sat on a bhouy and looked back into the crowded beach and the busy road remembering the afternoon Roddy phoned him at work and told him he had just landed in Sarande in the south of Albania, right in the thick of the unrest, and a man had tried to steal his camera at gunpoint.
“What did you do?”
There was a delay on Roddy’s satellite phone.
“Told him he couldn’t have it.”
He looked for Clara and the children on the beach and when he saw them he waved. After a while they waved back. He swam to another bhouy and sat on it for a while. Then he let himself down into the water and sprinted for the beach.
Half way there his hand knocked into something solid. He stopped swimming and looked up. His path was blocked by a kayak. In it sat a young man in a red singlet.
“No boats here” he said. “Swimming here.”
“I am Lifeguard” explained the young man. “I saw you waving.”
“I’m fine” he replied, craning his neck, summoning all the self importance available to him.
“I was waving to my children.”
“Please don’t wave” said the young man.
“Anyway, I’m a good swimmer” he said firmly and set off for the beach.
In the afternoon Clara and the children had a sleep and he found a café and ordered a double espresso and a grappa and sat in the shade reading Laurie Lee’s When I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Lee was south of London, wandering the Sussex roads alongside the tramps and “that host of unemployed” created by England’s Depression:
“There seemed to be more of them inland than on the coast – maybe the police had seen to that. They were like a broken army walking away from a war, cheeks sunken, eyes dead with fatigue. Some carried bags of tools, or shabby cardboard suitcases; some wore the ghosts of city suits; some, when they stopped to rest, carefully removed their shoes and polished them vaguely with handfuls of grass. Among them were carpenters, clerks, engineers from the Midlands; many had been on the road for months, walking up and down the country in a maze of jobless refusals, the treadmill of the mid-Thirties …”
He had planned to get up early the next morning for a training swim in the harbour but it wasn’t possible. The five of them were sharing a room high in the roof of the hotel, and when he woke Clara was staring at the ceiling.
“It’s so hot” she whispered. “I can’t sleep”.
It took him ten minutes to wake the children, get them dressed and push them out of the door.
“Mum needs a lie-in. We’re going to play cricket.”
The Piazza Unità d’Italia was empty. The air was already hot, the early morning sun heavy on their backs. In the shadow of a high municipal building he found an empty bottle of beer.
“This can be our bat”.
They had brought a tennis ball with them.
An ornate iron lamp post became a set of stumps, the other was the pushchair, in which Poppy sat drinking milk.
“Poppy can be the umpire” said Jake.
“Good thinking. And who are you?”
“And I’m Graeme Swann when I bowl and Ian Bell when I bat” said Fred.
“And who am I?” he asked.
“You are Graham Onions” said Fred. “And I’m batting.”
“And I’m wicket keeper” shouted Jake.
Graham Onions ran in to bowl to Ian Bell, off his short run up. Bell moved back and cut the ball towards the Adriatic. The ball ran away towards the Municipal Buildings boundary where it was fielded by Andrew Strauss, diving heroically to save four runs.
Bell pulled a shorter ball towards the Duchi D’Aosta Hotel.
“Wide” shouted Poppy.
The game went on. It was hot out in the middle.
“Look” shouted Strauss, pointing out to sea.
They stopped and looked out to sea. An enormous white cruise liner was approaching the harbour, escorted by a black-hulled tug boat.
“Play is suspended” announced Onions.
They hurried across the Piazza and stood at the quay watching the ship draw near. The Costa Classica had three yellow chimneys, over them hung dark clouds of smoke. Her high white sides looked paper thin. Passengers lined her decks, peering down into Trieste while they digested their breakfasts. A crowd gathered, and Carabinieri drove up in an Alfa Romeo 159, and two armed Customs officers in a VW Golf. A man from Picollo, the local newspaper, was taking photographs. Then the crew, neat in white t-shirts, were throwing down thin ropes which were tied to thick, heavy ropes; these were hauled by men on the quay and hooked over huge iron bollards. Engines on the ship’s bow and stern pulled in the rope, tightening them and drawing the vessel snug against the quayside. Suddenly they were standing in the ships shadow, and the tug was heading away, its work done.