On the Opposite Side


Francesca Duranti

translated from Italian by the author

Fairies gather around all cradles,

loved and unloved.

These were the two opening verses of my first (and last) poem, written at age eight. It went on for a while, always lacking in metrics. It recounted the many gifts bestowed upon baby me by the good fairies: modesty was not among them, I am afraid.

But the key was in the second verse, "loved and unloved", the meaning of which was that my mother didn't love me. This was not entirely true, but was what I thought for a long time.

It was not her fault. She had lived an intense (although platonic) Oedipal relationship with her father, my formidable, money-making grandfather. A relationship that shut out my shy and frail grandmother, who died at age forty-one of loneliness and heart failure. I know, these are just antecedents. But do not worry: I am going to be brief.

Grandfather too, died comparatively young, at age sixty; otherwise my mother would have never been allowed to fall in love with my father, and I would have never been born.

But then again her father died, she fell in love, she got married and then pregnant.

Her firm intention was to have a boy, someone who could be given her father's name and re-live with her the same, although reversed, relationship which she experienced with him. I also think she might have feared that a girl and her beloved husband could have some kind of special bond between them, something that might leave her out; who knows. She knew by her own experience that this kind of thing is possible.

Anyway, when she first saw me she was bitterly disappointed. She decided not to breast-feed me, and since she had money and could have all of the possible highly trained help to take care of me, she never built with me the special kind of bond that comes when somebody strong and self-sufficient is obliged to take care of some creature who is absolutely weak and dependent. Even naughty Jack Nicholson, when forced to see to his neighbour's little dog, you remember, sweetens up eventually.

Although mostly indirectly, she performed all her motherly duties with great discipline. She managed to be a very good mother, I adored her and still adore her, but she never got to love me the way I wanted.

Needless to say I thought nobody ever would.


But then, when I was twenty, I met Riccardo, and everything changed. Ten years older than me, he was tall, blond, handsome. He wanted me alone and nobody else but me, not even his wife, with whom he had been married for eight years with no love and no children.

We eloped, we went to live in a cottage in the countryside near Florence, he divorced and we got married.

Successfully, although not enthusiastically, he ran a real estate business. I waited for him at home, enthusiastically. This was our law: in order to survive one of us had to have a job, we thought, but life is not about that. Our passion, our success, our career was the two of us: you for me, I for you. We did not try to have children.

I waited for him cooking romantic meals and setting flowers; he would sell houses and do everything else for us. When my paternal grandmother died leaving me a little financial portfolio, he would handle that too, very efficiently. He would take the cars (his and mine) to their annual check-up; he would fill the tax forms (his and mine); he would call the plumber; he would tip the postman. With our money (his and mine) he would pay the bills (his and mine).

I indulged myself in being taken care of, it felt so cozy. I had not been loved as child, now I was loved like a child.

We had very few friends, mostly couples. The ladies admired Riccardo unconditionally. Once, during a dinner party in our love nest, somebody introduced a new guy , who seemed to admire mostly me: he was never invited again. During the general conversations everyone was supposed to hang onto Riccardo's words. I didn't speak much; whenever I ventured beyond my usual laconic standard he would punish me with a few days of silence. He didn't like anyone to compete with him for the centre of the stage: "You are trying to be smart at my expense," he would say.

I had a lot of free time, so I would cut and sew beautiful coloured kimonos, I would paint birds, I would bake special corn cookies from my Piedmontese grandmother's recipe-book. Riccardo wore my kimonos, admired my paintings, devoured my cookies.

Then, more or less in the same spirit, I wrote a novel. But this time, without trying to explain it to myself rationally, I felt it was different. So I didn't tell Riccardo, and I didn't inform him that I sent the manuscript to a publisher. But then I had to tell him that it had been accepted and that it was going to be published. So he walked out on me. For good, forever.


Needless to say I was very unhappy. And inept, of course. While my car's engine burned out, my portfolio decreased its value, while I became delinquent in payment of all dues, the book became a best-seller, got several literary prizes, was translated into many languages . And I was invited to the International Festival of the Arts in Adelaide, South Australia.


That's why, and we finally get to our story, in a fine summer day, although it was January, I was in that city, standing in front of a podium, under a huge circus tent, with a microphone under my nose. Sitting in the first rows there where Kazuo Ishiguro, Amos Oz, Julian Barnes and other famous writers, who had already given their readings on the previous days, who were lodged in the same hotel as me, who had participated to the same receptions which had been offered for us by our respective Consulates, (including the Italian Consulate, for me!) and had become my friends. So I, who am not able to fill a form or to fix a fuse, was trying to keep my voice steady while reading a few pages of my book in the English translation published by Random House.

Everything went well. I did not faint, I did not pee in my panties. There were other days of readings and meetings, then it was over. I had managed to come to Australia from so far away and with so little experience in travelling - and none in travelling by myself - that it felt stupid to go home at once. So I asked Alitalia, who had offered my ticket, to move my return flight three weeks later, so that I could tour Australia.

They did a great job. They contacted some Italian Institutes of Culture along the route they chose for me, so that I would give other readings and be hosted by them. The package would take me to Sidney, Melbourne, Cairns, Durban and thence to Singapore (at the Raffles, the hotel of famous travelling writers) and finally home. It wouldn't cost me anything and I would not need to be a consummate traveller, since I would be picked up and be taken care of in all ways.


Everything went well until I left Melbourne on an evening flight to Cairns. Half way we got into a huge storm. We wandered desperately through the sky with lightning darting all around us in the darkness and we ended up with a very difficult landing in Brisbane, where there was no Italian Institute of Culture expecting me. I had no hotel reservation and moreover it was three o'clock in the morning.

The airport was almost deserted. I was all alone in a hemisphere which was not mine. Used to be taken care of, I didn't know what to do, so I went to a newsstand, the only one still open, and bought a world map. It was enormous and could not be displayed in all its width on one of the coffee tables in the waiting lounge. So I sat on the floor, my back against a wall, I laid the map in front of me and tried to orient myself.

The sight of the earth's surface all laid out between my wide-open, blue-jeaned legs frightened me. Home was horribly far away and I was not the travel-smart kind. But I had to do something, so I decided that what I wanted, first of all, was to leave Brisbane. Due to the weather it was impossible to reach Cairns, and in Durban I was expected only three days later. I suppressed the temptation to exchange all my remaining tickets for the quickest possible flight to Italy.

The first plane to take off the next morning would fly me to Alice Springs, in the centre of the desert. The name was pretty, so I bought a ticket for that city. From there I would go by bus to Ayers Rock for two days. After that, things would go on as planned: Durban ( Kakadu park and crocodiles), Singapore (Raffles), home.


I got to Alice Springs at noon. The outside temperature was a million degrees. The hotel had a nice swimming-pool, but I did not even look for a swimming suit in my luggage. I locked myself in my room, I collected all the nuts and crackers and potato chips from my mini bar, devoured them and fell asleep. When I woke up I ordered a club sandwich in my room, with a glass of white wine from the region of Adelaide. There, in South Australia, I had been lovingly pampered and I thought of it as almost home, compared to how estranged I was feeling in that desert.

The next day at 10 a.m. , according to my schedule, I boarded the bus which would take me to Ayers Rock, the red monolith, symbol of Australia. The air-conditioned vehicle was huge and panoramic. The sky was cloudless, the air transparent. A perfect day. We were supposed to call the bus driver "coach captain", in order to underscore his authority and responsibility along that voyage through a desert we were suggested to believe full of perils. We were informed that, whenever we would step out of the bus to take photos, we would be given a card with a number, which we had to give back upon re-boarding. Under the windows, although they were sealed, a sign read: "all limbs should be kept within the vehicle", the same sign I saw two days later in the Kakadu park, on the boats that would take us to see the crocodiles in the swamps covered with lotuses and water hyacinths.

I don't know if all this was due to necessary caution or to a well concocted subliminal publicity: in fact it was probably aimed to suggest to us tourists that we were wandering in a land that was difficult, hard and unpredictably dangerous—but worthwhile, because it was beautiful, "different" , the right place for us, reckless and unconventional travellers.

It worked for me. There was in me the same sense of being out of my natural element that made me feel alone and afraid in Brisbane, but on that bus, under the guide of the brave coach captain, the feeling made me feel proud of myself. 'Look where I am, Riccardo. A captain - not a driver - is leading me where only a few dare to tread, through this insidious, endless and incredibly red desert, dotted with velvety sky-blue bushes, never seen in our hemisphere."

I didn't expect to see much , beside that incredible two- toned palette: it was a desert, after all. Nevertheless we met several snakes, some iguanas and even a few minor marsupials, the ones less fussy as far as their daily menu was concerned. The coach captain told us that there were equally frugal groups of aborigines living around there, but that they usually stayed away from the road.

The hotel, where we arrived at dinner time after a long journey, consisted in a group of numerous concrete buildings of different dimensions, all white and in the form of tents, sitting on a large area of that incredibly red sand. Ayers Rock was not visible, because, I was told, being a sacred place for the aborigines, it was not allowed to have any building within sight of it. We would visit it the next day, shortly before sunset.


I had my dinner at the restaurant, alone at a corner table, my back protected by the two walls. I was the only one who had no company there, but it didn't bother me. We had exchanged our books with the other authors at the Festival, and during my dinner I started to read the one given to me by Jan Morris, a sweet elderly British lady whom I met on the minibus that had gathered and taken to our hotel all the authors who had landed in Adelaide the same time I did. She wore a navy skirt, a pink blouse and a string of pearls around her neck. She talked to me about her children and grand-children.

Before I wrote my novel, I lived completely outside the literary world, so only few days later I learned that she was not the mother and the grandmother of those descendants, but their father and grandfather, since she had started her life as a man; I also learned that, before going through the surgery, Jan had served in the Royal Air Force during WW2 and followed as a reporter the famous Mount Everest expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary.

The book recounted her story, it was a very good book and it kept me company during my dinner and later in bed.


The next day I did not lock myself in my room as I did in Alice Springs. I found my bathing suit, I swam in the pool, I walked on the red paths between the white concrete tents, I finished Jan's book and started the one Julian Barnes gave me.

The time came to go visit Ayers Rock. Our coach captain had gone back to Alice Springs with his huge bus, to collect more tourists; now we were assigned to a number of other drivers, much less commanding, who drove smaller buses, like school-buses. The atmosphere was much less solemn than the day before, and reminded me indeed of a noisy and undisciplined excursion of school children.

Although the windows were not sealed, there weren't any signs warning us to keep all limbs within the vehicle, there were no numbers to take or to give back, tourists would call one another from one bus to the next and would pour out to take photos incessantly, exchanging coke cans and sandwiches, running around like hens and re-boarding casually one bus or the other.

We reached Ayers Rock one hour before sunset, and we all stood still in admiration for a while. Then the tourists flocked around and dispersed with their cameras. I approached the red monolith by myself, enchanted by the religious atmosphere which surrounded it. But more than anything (I have always lived in the countryside and know a little about botany) I was thrilled by the flora growing there. There was not a single bush or grass stalk that I was able to identify. I knew that I was not supposed to pick anything, and I didn't, but I wandered from one bush to the next, thrilled by the unparalleled excitement of scientific discovery.

When I heard the engines turning over I was far enough, hidden behind an outcropping of the rocks, a few meters above on one of the flanks that ran alongside. In my haste to climb down, I slipped and fell badly. There was nothing broken, and not even strained, but I was limping. I soon realized that I would not make it to the parking place before all the buses left, so I called and called. But the noise of the engines drowned out my voice. When I got there, every vehicle had gone.

I tried to tell myself that the driver of my bus would check his passengers, but I knew that, even if he noticed my absence, he wouldn't worry, since so many tourists had moved from one bus to another.


Now I was really alone. It was quickly getting dark. Around me, in that place sacred to the aborigines, among alien, menacing flora, I saw the stars beginning to light up in the sky. And they were not the same stars that would shine at home. The only celestial body that I would know, the moon, was not visible that night. I was outside in the dark at the complete mercy of the local fauna. In the deep silence I heard, from abyssal distances, a disquieting sound, a deep vibration, dark, threatening.

I tried to convince myself that it was the wind, or some bird, a strange bird like everything that was strange in that upside-down country, but I knew it was not true. That was the sound of an aborigine musical instrument, so it was true that the natives were actually living in that desert. This, I am ashamed to admit, scared me as, in that time of solitude, the unknown bushes scared me and everything that was diametrically opposed to the world familiar to me: the Southern Cross, the furry animals that would lay eggs and then proceeded to breast feed their young, the creatures with a bag on their belly, the incredibly, unnaturally bright birds, the unnaturally red sand, the water running out of a tap swirling around in the opposite way than it did in my hemisphere. This last surprising information had been given to me in Melbourne, but there, under the kind protection of the Italian Institute of Culture's director, it had thrilled me.

I don't know how long I remained there, paralyzed by fear. I sat on a stone and told myself that probably they would not even find my body, since I remembered a couple of Australian movies that narrated such tales of demise.


It was completely dark when the bus reappeared. The driver started to call me "Miss! Miss! Are you there?"

"Here! I am here!"

Now I wasn't limping anymore. I ran to the bus and boarded it. The other tourists greeted me with applause, and they didn't seem to be annoyed to have postponed their dinner because of me. The Japanese lady who was sitting next to me told me that the bus driver had been called by somebody with a cell phone, who told him that at the foot of the rock there was a lost lady.


"A local guy, a friend of our driver."

So it was confirmed that there were aborigines living in that desert where survival seemed impossible. They had been all around me, invisible. This I knew already. But then they had cell phones, which was quite surprising, and were sympathetic, since they had used their unexpectedly modern tools to pull me out of trouble. I couldn't thank them as heartily as I wished, but since in this minor bus it was not forbidden, I put one of my limbs, an arm, out of the window and waved fondly towards the darkness.


Four days later I was in Singapore, at the Raffles, in the bedroom that was once Somerset Maugham's. I had a Singapore Sling with the hotel manager in the billiard room, where eighty years ago a tiger walked in. A British major-general, the manager said , rang for a footman and, with great poise, ordered: "show this animal out, will you."

The story thrilled me. At the Raffles, I thought, I was not only far from home in space, but in time as well.


Fact is that everything started to go better after the excursion to Ayers Rock. That evening I had dinner with the Japanese lady and her family. After dinner I stayed up for a couple of hours and danced under the stars with men of all nationalities. Before going to sleep I went out on the terrace of my tent and looked for the Southern Cross. It shone in the direction of Antarctica in the dark blue sky. After brushing my teeth I filled the basin with water, then I took out the plug. The water ran out clockwise. With an act of faith, since I never had a reason for checking, I decided that at home it would run out the other way around.

I felt that I was very, very far from home, all by myself, and enjoyed the feeling immensely. And that's when I started to think that maybe I would make it, after all, even without Riccardo.