The road is flanked with bulrushes ten foot high. It reminds me of when I was a child and used to play in the maize fields. We weren’t supposed to do it, but we’d run in, breathless with terror, chasing and shrieking and secretly hoping to get lost forever. Reaching the middle, surrounded only by rustling leaves and unable to see the edges, was both exciting and horrifying. A pause for a minute, to savour the sense of aloneness. Then the giddy, heart-in-mouth dash to escape, wondering if *this* would be the day when you didn’t make it out again. Fear mounting as the rows continued on and on with no sign of running out. Feet in black daps pounding dry earth, faster and faster, leaves whipping your face and stalks scratching bare legs. Breath shortening and a scream building in your throat. Then the mixture of relief and crushing disappointment as you reached the point where the maize changed direction, signalling the edge of the field and return to reality.
Of course, here I am on solid tarmac. I may not be able to see to either side but I know that nothing can go too wrong.
Or so you’d think.
I come across a sign saying that the road is closed further on. Then I round a corner and see concrete bollards. They’re not blocking the road, though, so I drive on past them. The last turning off this road was a good few miles back and I don’t fancy backtracking. All I can do is hope that the road doesn’t disappear entirely. It doesn’t. (Quite …)
At a bridge over a small river, the sides of the road have collapsed. Rather than repair it, some higher power has lumped earth and small stones onto the edges of the one-time bridge. The carriageway is just wide enough for one car to go through, but you wouldn’t want to mis-steer, as you’d end up in the stream.
A dog lollops out of the reeds, round fluffy face split with a big canine grin. He trots along the road, past the archetypal boys on mopeds, their jeans blindingly white in the sun.
I stop for fuel. It’s Sunday afternoon, so there isn’t a petrol attendant today. I park up and scrabble in the footwell for the petrol cap release. Sitting up again, I am faced with a grinning man signalling for his mates to back their car up. I climb out of the car and watch in amusement as the group attempt to work the pump. Sorry – did you want this? he asks. I shake my head and gesture for him to continue. I still need to pay, so he might as well jump the queue of one. I hear them whispering together, trying to place where I’m from. I ‘fess up. English, but I speak a bit of Italian. They grin triumphantly. Me too! says one of them. I giggle. He amends the statement. Am Italian, ma … speak a little English. They finish filling the car and all leap back inside. Hello! They wave as they leave, puffed up with pride at their bravery.
When I reach the seaside it’s just before the end of lunchtime. The beach is quiet, although there are a few people out and about. A trio of middle-aged and elderly women sit on a bench in the shade, slurping gelato and cackling. A people-carrier pulls up in front of them and the oldest woman creaks to her feet. She shuffles to the car as her daughter (granddaughter?) climbs out and opens the door. Grandma chucks the small child in the front seat under the chin before being hoisted inside. Her cronies on the bench gesture and call their goodbyes as they scoop the last of their ice-cream into their mouths with childish glee.
A girl in a pink swimsuit races onto the beach and up the steps of the dilapidated slide next to me. She launches herself down it and the metal screeches at the unaccustomed touch of hot, bare skin. I wince at the sense memory of losing layers of skin in similar exercises as a child. The girl, however, doesn’t seem worried, dancing off the bottom of the slide to hide behind a handy well. She peeks over the top, eyes glinting with mischief, keeping a good look-out for the other children in her group.
A grandfather sits heavily on the wall bordering the seafront. He is dressed in muted colours and has ill-fitting false teeth, causing his mouth to collapse back in on itself. He is keeping up a constant stream of low-level Italian hectoring, but there’s a twinkle in his eye that suggests it’s none too serious. His tiny granddaughter beams at him, planting herself on the wall next to him and yanking her trainers off. His scolding increases, but she ignores it. There is sand in her shoes and she’s going to get rid of it, indulgent grandfatherly horror or no.
A royal blue Renault Clio has passed by three times now. It’s giro time, and young men are out on the prowl. They slow as they loop around the rubbish bins at the end of the seafront. There’s a shout from one of the middle-aged women next to me. When are you coming to see your poor zia? Neglected, I am! Wednesday? Come! The boys unfold themselves from their car with practised teenage insouciance and cross the road, grinning. Yes, zia. Whatever you say, zia. She bats away their kisses, laughing as she does so.