November is for remembrance; I decided to visit my father’s grave. In my poppy-red jumper, with my bereavement-grey shawl to knit on the way, I set out. The train trundled fast through the Ligurian hills, close-crowding like the flanks of an affectionate, green poodle, and on inland into austere Piemonte, where the hills keep an aloof distance and flat fields spread out between them. I knit nupps to nix my nerves.
From the broad boulevards of central Turin to the coniferous curves of the mountain road, the taxi driver alternated between local history and compliments.
‘At one point of course there were a lot of witches around here– they used to have black masses in that square outside the Gran Madre. How come you’re not married? You’re so sunny! It’s too cold in Scotland, maybe Scottish men have cold souls. Find yourself a nice Italian man. Do you know the population of Turin has dropped from 1.3 million in the Fiat golden years to…’
Half-remembered houses clinging to the hillside hurtled past. We asked for directions, took a steep street under an old brick arch – there was the nectarine-yellow church where the funeral was – and up, up in the mist at the very top of the hill, there was the graveyard. He wished me luck and undercharged me.
It must have been – Jesus, ten years? Maybe more? Since I’d been. We moved to Scotland, and my grandfather left the North for a lonely corn on the toe of the Italian boot: our trips to the peninsula became games of connect-the-dots between Edinburgh and a constellation of Southern airports. I had forgotten the hill-cool of Piemonte. I had forgotten a lot. Nevertheless, my feet carried me to exactly the right spot in the graveyard.
There can be a kind of competitiveness to these cities of the dead. ‘Oh, you’ve got a little plant pot there, have you, hmm?'
'Well, I’ve got a manicured shrubbery.’
‘Oh yeah? I’ll see your shrubbery, and raise you an enormous alabaster mansion, where me and my descendants will recline in style for all eternity.’
I find it all a bit tomb much. Still, nothing had quite prepared me for the sorry state my father’s grave was in. Some unknown hand had pity-littered it with fake flowers, now faded, and a small evergreen, now a nevergreen.
The desultory, dateless stone, only ever meant to be temporary, stayed in place during wranglings about whether and whither to move him, and at some point gave up, fell backwards and cracked into three pieces. The very ground seemed tired and saggy.
I didn’t think it would matter to me – the cemetery wasn’t a place I associated with him, after all, with him alive that is. Anyone who has ever seen a dead body will attest to how weirdly little they retain of the person-that-was: whatever your views on the afterlife are, something has definitely departed. Besides, it had been a long time – way past ‘recently bereaved’, past even ‘delayed reaction’ and into, I don’t know, ‘wistful smiles and fond remembrance’. After seventeen years surely the clawing wildcat of fresh grief should be tamed to a tabby that can be trusted not to spray sadness all over the furniture. Standing at that poor, abandoned grave, though, I must admit I lost my shit.
I thought of all the mountains of stuff I would like to talk to him about. As I took photos of the place, I wished I could ask his advice about proper cameras, about f-stops, shutter speeds, light metres, tripods – and in return share my largely useless knowledge of Hipstamatic. I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’, an album he had on heavy rotation in his car, and thought of all the cool new music I bet he would have liked. I thought of how funny he was, and all the jokes we could have shared. I thought of all the places I’d been, people I’d met, and things I’d learned since I was ten that he knew nothing about and never would.
Then, partly because I needed a repetitive, mechanical thing to do to get myself together, and partly out of an urge to show him one of these things I had learned, like child-me might once proudly have shown him a gold star earned at school, I took out my knitting. I unfurled the tangled shawl-creature, smoothing out the charts on the marble top of a neighbouring tomb. And there, at my father’s grave I sat, wept, knit, until the rain came down and it was time to go.