The weather was muggy, and I could hear the storm rumbling in the distance.
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Fourteen seconds. It must be at Monterosso.
I had discovered the Cinque Terre at the age of twenty-six. An impulse trip found me watching this sea one July evening and wondering how I had got there. I had had to go away, to escape from that person I no longer recognised. To escape from myself.
I had bought a plane ticket, tucked my laptop under my arm, and decided to go away for a while to write and take stock.
That was six years ago. And I have never gone back.
Some will say I was running away.
The blue of the water and the colors of the houses were like therapy to me. Streaks of life-saving color to teach me to live alone again, and take my life in hand once more, after years of being lost in my own head.
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Nine seconds. The storm was getting nearer, making me shiver whenever the wind swooped down on the port of Vernazza.
The first time I had set eyes on the colored houses of one of the Cinque Terre villages, the beauty of the place had made me forget why I was there. And then I had seen her. An old lady wearing a blue sweater, despite the heat. She was sitting on a bench, looking out to sea, and seemed to be staring unblinking at the horizon. I will never forget the expression on her face. She reminded me... of myself. A lost face, which sadness had passed over, leaving signs that nothing could erase. She looked lost, stuck between two places, incapable of either going forward or retreating to the past.
I had rented an apartment on the top floor of a shaky building whose wooden floor squeaked with every step. But for the first time, I felt I was where I was meant to be. I knew it was here I would resolve what I had to resolve.
For several weeks, I had gone to the port, and sat on the bench next to the one where the old lady sat. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, staring at the horizon. From time to time, she would close her eyes, as if she was hoping that when she opened them she would have found the reason she was there.
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Six seconds. It wouldn’t be long now.
One day, when I was writing on my usual bench, the old lady had spoken to me, without even looking towards me:
“You know, sorrow is like the sea, it always calms in the end.”
I had looked at her, open-mouthed, unable to pronounce a single word. She finally turned her head, looked straight into my eyes, and smiled. A timid, yet warm, smile, full of empathy and understanding.
Her name was Agnese and she had been coming to that bench for three years, every day, whether or not there was rain, wind or a crowd of tourists.
She never told me her story.
Every day, we talked about life, our travels, our experiences. Sometimes, we did not speak at all, but that did not matter. The silences were just as beneficial and appreciated as our long conversations.
Agnese was the support I had needed all that time, without ever realising it. That outstretched hand that would help me turn the page, and mourn a past love which had profoundly marked me.
Sometimes we shared pastries which one of us would bring from the village bakery, still warm and fragrant from the oven from which they had just come.
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Four seconds. The badly fixed shutters banged against the façades of the houses, the outside lights flickered. The boats were tossed about to the rhythm of the waves which seemed to be preparing to greet the storm that would no longer wait, plunging the whole village into a tense, yet peaceful, atmosphere.
When I had set foot in Vernezza, I never thought I would meet someone who would change my life once again and allow me to tend a wound I had thought too deep to heal.
A huge streak of lightning crossed the sky, lighting up the village as if it was broad daylight. I watched the spectacle with the eyes of a child, though they were damp with tears and drops of rain. My gaze fell upon the tombstone engraved with the name of Agnese along with the years of her birth and death.
And these words, which still echo in my mind whenever my gaze rests on the water: “Sorrow is like the sea, it always calms in the end.”
I murmured “Thank you, Agnese”, with a lump in my throat, before looking back one last time at the sea, and leaving Vernazza to go to the airport.
It was time to go home.
Translated by Wendy Cross