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Authors: Kate Eberlen

Miss You

BOOK: Miss You
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In memory of my lovely Gran, who made ordinary things wonderful

































August 1997

In the kitchen at home, there was a plate that Mum bought on holiday in Tenerife with a hand-painted motto:
Today is the first day of the rest of your life

It had never registered with me any more than Dad’s trophy for singing, or the New York snow dome my brother Kevin sent over one Christmas, but that last day of the holiday, I
couldn’t seem to get it out of my head.

When I woke up, the inside of the tent was glowing orange, like a pumpkin lantern. I inched the zipper door down carefully so as not to wake Doll, then stuck my face out into dazzling sunlight.
The air was still a little bit shivery and I could hear the distant clank of bells. I wrote the word ‘plangent’ in my diary with an asterisk next to it so I could check it in the
dictionary when I got home.

The view of Florence from the campsite, all terracotta domes and white marble towers shimmering against a flat blue sky, was so like it was supposed to be, I had this strange feeling of sadness,
as if I was missing it already.

There were lots of things I wouldn’t miss, like sleeping on the ground – after a few hours, the stones feel like they’re growing into your back – and getting dressed in a
space less than three feet high, and walking all the way to the shower block, then remembering you’ve left the toilet roll in the tent. It’s funny how when you get towards the end of a
holiday, half of you never wants it to end and the other half is looking forward to the comforts of home.

We’d been Interrailing for a month, down through France, then into Italy, sleeping on stations, drinking beer with Dutch boys on campsites, struggling with sunburn in slow, sticky trains.
Doll was into beaches and Bellinis; I was more maps and monuments, but we got along like we always had since we met on the first day at St Cuthbert’s, aged four, and Maria Dolores
O’Neill – I was the one who abbreviated it to Doll – asked, ‘Do you want to be my best friend?’

We were different, but we complemented each other. Whenever I said that, Doll always said, ‘You’ve got great skin!’ or ‘I really like those shoes,’ and if I told
her it wasn’t that sort of compliment, she’d laugh, and say she knew, but I was never sure she did. You develop a kind of special language with people you’re close to, don’t

My memories of the other places we went to that holiday are like postcards: the floodlit amphitheatre in Verona against an ink-dark sky; the azure bay of Naples; the unexpectedly vibrant colours
of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but that last, carefree day we spent in Florence, the day before my life changed, I can retrace hour by hour, footstep by footstep almost.

Doll always took much longer than me getting ready in the mornings because she never went out without full make-up even then. I liked having time on my own, especially that morning because it
was the day of my A-level results and I was trying to compose myself for hearing if I’d done well enough to get into university.

On the way up to the campsite the previous evening, I’d noticed the floodlit facade of a church high above the road, pretty and incongruous like a jewel box in a forest. In daylight, the
basilica was much bigger than I’d imagined, and as I climbed the grand flights of baroque steps towards it, I had the peculiar thought that it would make the perfect setting for a wedding,
which was unlike me because I’d never had a proper boyfriend then, let alone pictured myself in a long white dress.

From the terrace at the top, the view was so exhilarating, I felt an irrational urge to cry as I promised myself solemnly – like you do when you’re eighteen – that I would one
day return.

There was no one else around, but the heavy wooden door of the church opened when I gave it a push. It was so dark inside after the glare, my eyes took a little time to adjust to the gloom. The
air was a few degrees cooler than the heat outside and it had that churchy smell of dust mingling with incense. Alone in God’s house, I was acutely aware of the irreverent flap of my sandals
as I walked up the steps to the raised chancel. I was staring at the giant, impassive face of Jesus, praying that my grades were going to be OK, when suddenly, magically, the apse filled with

Spinning round, I was startled to see a lanky guy about my own age, standing beside a box on the wall where you could put a coin in to turn the lights on. Damp brown hair swept back from his
face, he was even more inappropriately dressed than me, in running shorts, a vest and trainers. There was a moment when we could have smiled at one another, or even said something, but we missed
it, as we both self-consciously turned our attention to the huge dome of golden mosaic and the light went out again with a loud clunk, as decisively and unexpectedly as it had come on.

I glanced at my watch in the ensuing dimness, as if to imply that I would like to give the iconic image more serious consideration, perhaps even contribute my own minute of electricity, if I
wasn’t already running late. As I reached the door, I heard the clunk again, and, looking up at Christ’s solemn, illuminated features, felt as if I’d disappointed Him.

Doll was fully coiffed and painted by the time I arrived back at the campsite.

‘What was it like?’ she asked.

‘Byzantine, I think,’ I said.

‘Is that good?’


After cappuccinos and custard buns – amazing how even campsite bar snacks are delicious in Italy – we packed up and decided to go straight down into town to the central post office
where I could make an international call and get my results so that wouldn’t be hanging over us all day. Even if the news was bad, I wanted to hear it. What I couldn’t deal with was the
limbo state of not knowing what the future held for me. So we walked down to the
centro storico
, with me chattering away about everything except the subject that was preoccupying me.

The fear was so loud in my head when I dialled our number, I felt as if I’d lost the ability to speak.

Mum answered after one ring.

‘Hope’s going to read your results to you,’ she said.

‘Mum!’ I cried, but it was too late.

My little sister Hope was already on the line.

‘Read your results to you,’ she said.

‘Go on then.’

‘A, B, C . . .’ she said slowly, like she was practising her alphabet.

‘Isn’t that marvellous?’ said Mum.


‘You’ve an A for English, B for Art History and C for Religion and Philosophy.’

‘You’re kidding?’ I’d been offered a place at University College London conditional on my getting two Bs and a C, so it was better than I needed.

I ducked my head out of the Perspex dome to give Doll the thumbs-up.

Down the line, Mum was cheering, then Hope joined in. I pictured the two of them standing in the kitchen beside the knick-knack shelf with the plate that said
Today is the first day of the
rest of your life

Doll’s suggestion for a celebration was to blow all the money we had left on a bottle of
at a pavement table on Piazza Signoria. She had more money than
me from working part-time in the salon while she was doing her diploma and she had been hankering for another outside table ever since Venice, where we’d inadvertently spent a whole
day’s budget on a cappuccino in St Mark’s Square. At eighteen, Doll already had a taste for glamour. But it was only ten o’clock in the morning, and I figured that even if we
stretched it out, we would still have hours before our overnight train to Calais, and probably headaches. I’m practical like that.

‘It’s up to you,’ said Doll, disappointed. ‘It’s your celebration.’

There were so many sights I wanted to see: the Uffizi, the Bargello, the Duomo, the Baptistery, Santa Maria Novella . . .

‘You mean churches, don’t you?’ Doll wasn’t going to be fooled by the Italian names.

Both of us were brought up Catholic, but at that point in our lives Doll saw church as something that stopped her having a lie-in on Sunday and I thought it was cool to describe myself as
agnostic, although I still found myself quite often praying for things. For me, Italy’s churches were principally places not so much of God but of culture. To be honest, I was pretentious,
but I was allowed to be because I was about to become a student.

After leaving our rucksacks in Left Luggage at the station, we did a quick circuit of the Duomo, taking photographs of each other outside the golden Baptistery doors, then navigated a backstreet
route towards Santa Croce, stopping at a tiny artisan
that was opening up for the day. Ice cream in the morning satisfied Doll’s craving for decadence. We chose three
flavours each from cylindrical tubs arranged behind the glass counter like a giant paintbox.

For me, refreshing mandarin, lemon and pink grapefruit.

‘Too breakfast-y,’ said Doll, indulging herself with marsala, cherry and fondant chocolate, which she described as orgasmic and which sustained her good mood through an hour’s
worth of Giotto murals.

The fun thing about looking at art with Doll was her saying things like, ‘He wasn’t very good at feet, was he?’ but when we emerged from the church, I could tell she’d
had enough culture and the midday city heat felt oppressive, so I suggested we take a bus to the ancient hill town of Fiesole, which I had read about in the
Rough Guide
. It was a relief to
stand by the bus window, getting the movement of air on our faces.

Fiesole’s main square was stunningly peaceful after Florence’s packed streets.

‘Let’s have a celebratory
menu turistico
,’ I said, deciding to splurge the last little bit of money I’d been saving in case of emergencies.

We sat on the terrace of the restaurant, with Florence a miniature city in the distance, like the backdrop to a Leonardo painting.

‘Any educational activities planned for this afternoon?’ Doll asked, dabbing the corners of her mouth after demolishing a bowl of spaghetti

‘There is a Roman theatre,’ I admitted. ‘But I’m fine going round on my own, honest . . .’

‘Those bloody Romans got everywhere, didn’t they?’ said Doll, but she was happy enough to follow me there.

We were the only people visiting the site. Doll lay sunbathing on a stone tier of seats as I explored. She sat up and started clapping when I found my way onto the stage. I took a bow.

‘Say something!’ Doll called.

‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!’ I shouted.

‘More!’ shouted Doll, getting out her camera.

‘Can’t remember any more!’

I jumped down from the stage and made my way up the steep steps.

‘Shall I take a picture of you?’

‘Let’s get one with both of us.’

With the camera positioned three steps up, Doll reckoned she could get us in the frame against the backdrop of Tuscan hills.

‘What’s the Italian for cheese?’ she asked, setting the timer, before scurrying down to stand next to me for the click of the shutter.

In my photograph album, it looks like we are blowing kisses at the camera. The self-stick stuff has gone all yellow now, and the plastic covering is brittle, but the colours – white stone,
blue sky, black-green cypresses – are just as sharp as I remember.

With invisible crickets chattering in the trees around us, we waited for the bus back to Florence in uncharacteristic silence.

BOOK: Miss You
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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