Laura Mautone

For Elsa and Tony

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

The English trains proceed along the tracks in an orderly fashion. Making no noise at all, they drift through the countryside like sighs. Your gaze is drawn towards the sea. Near the coast it’s the colour of mud, whereas the countryside inland fills the eyes with an intense green and little yellow dots, meadows covered in flowers. The hills, gentle and recumbent on the ground, are covered in trees and thriving plants. It was a sense of freedom that she had, seated in that compartment. Her lungs filled with air and she breathed as she hadn’t breathed in years. She was searching for light, that light which is so clear and rarefied, that light which numerous artists had searched for and had only been able to find here. Perhaps it was the tide, retreating so obviously and then returning, or the wind caressing the meadows, or the clouds giving solace to the sun, or perhaps it was the lighthouses along the coast, the sentinels of the rocks. In any case, that place had been a source of inspiration for many at the turn of the nineteenth century. Why not for her as well?
The train rounded a bend, and a contrail of blue and yellow flooded through the window: it was an enormous beach, carpeted in golden sand and completely deserted. Large pools of sea water reflected shards of sky, where the clouds were chasing each other. Truly breath-taking. She had stayed like that, with her nose pressed up against the window, until they arrived. A tiny station had welcomed her to that place, and she had sensed the magic in it instantly.
Elsa was a young painter. She loved the sea more than anything else, despite having been born in the mountains. She had arrived there without the faintest idea of what to expect. She never liked to do much research on the internet before travelling. She preferred to discover a place for herself. The painting course would take place at the museum dedicated to Barbara Hepworth: a small museum housed in what had once been the artist’s apartment. You could still see her studio and the sculpture garden. Wandering around that garden - along those little pathways amongst the cylindrical forms and hollowed monoliths with holes, almost like eyes, in the green flooded with sunlight - was like seeing light at the beginning of time.
“The light here is truly remarkable. But is it always like this, or only after the rain?” said Elsa. There had been many days of silence and at times she really felt the need to say something aloud, almost to prove to herself that she was still capable of doing so.
“It’s always like this here. The light in this corner of paradise is the same as in the very first days of life on Earth. It changes, of course. It’s typically English in this way, but the light here has always been a source of inspiration, from Turner onwards,” the museum curator had told her.
“It’s so transparent. It sounds like a paradox, but the light is so...light,” Elsa had said.
“The way that light transforms the landscape, Darling, that’s lightness,” he said with a certain finality, bringing to a close a conversation that had become too personal.
The teacher of the course was an elegant woman of Japanese origin. Every participant had selected their corner of the garden. She went around all of them without saying anything.
The next day the sun was shining, and a crisp breeze lashed her neck. She decided to take a guided tour of the little town. The guide was a very witty man of about seventy. The route took them via a cemetery nestled into the hillside, looking out over the ocean. There the guide had told them the story of Alfred Wallis, a painter who only painted lighthouses his whole life. Lighthouses from a distance, lighthouses in the foreground, lighthouses at sunset or surrounded by stormy seas. His gravestone had been made out of ceramic tiles the colour of rust with a picture of a white lighthouse and a shadow emerging from the half-closed door.
“All the more remarkable when you think he never actually set foot in a lighthouse!” the guide said.
On the second afternoon the painting teacher had stopped for some time to look at her painting. She had chosen a sculpture entitled “River”: a bronze cylinder with a hole, in which a small puddle of water had been deposited.
The following morning she took another tour and found herself accompanied by the same guide. Tony was a retired English teacher. The weather was beautiful, but in truth the air was rather uninviting. It was a small boat, and the sails were of a peculiar brickish colour. Having secured their life jackets, they were now seated. It was a hide tide, so it was necessary to move quickly, before it fell and the boat would be washed back onto the sand.
“Watch yourselves, it’s going to be a bit bumpy. Once you’re out of the port the wind is pretty fierce,” said Tony. And indeed the general chatter soon subsided. As they proceeded towards the lighthouse, bent over, the dark faces of the people sitting upwind were taut with anxiety. The sea had become swollen and as they approached the coast, Tony announced that they wouldn’t be able to stop.
“Just like Alfred Wallis,” said Elsa. “We’ll have to wait out whole lives before we reach the lighthouse.”
Tony added with astonishment “Well, finally someone who actually listens to me!” and one could see the beginnings of a smile. “The waves are too violent to go any closer.”
Once they were back on shore, Tony stopped her. “I wanted to ask if you fancied a cream tea. Do you have time?”
“I’m sorry, I have a painting course,” Elsa replied, a little embarrassed.
“You paint?” he asked her.
“I dabble,” she corrected him. “But another time.”
“I’m counting on it. The way the wave greets the cliff, Darling, that’s lightness,” he replied, and began to walk away. Elsa made her way to the course, astonished by those words. She had heard them somewhere before, but now she couldn’t remember where.
Finally, on the third day of the course, Ms Takashi spoke to her. She had noticed that the sculpture was missing something.
“The way the form emerges from the subject, Darling, that’s lightness,” she had told her.
Elsa had spun round. She had used those same words. Then she had turned around again so as not to seem offended.
The morning after, as she was strolling around the port, she had bumped into Tony. He was speaking to a journalist and had instantly come over to her.
“So then, what about that cream tea?” he had said. “I have an interview right now, but I’ll be free at four.”
“I have the course in the afternoon, unfortunately,” Elsa had replied.
“Another time then. By the way, nice earings you were wearing yesterday,” he had added.
They had said their goodbyes, and Elsa went on her way, surprised.
That same day, Ms Takashi, on observing her painting, repeated that same phrase.
“The way the colour settles on the canvas, Darling, that’s lightness.”
That phrase resounded in her in all its possible variations.
Who can say what conjunction of the stars must have intervened, which star must have fallen that August, in order for all the circumstances to be just right. Another August, definitely, which nourished the soul.

Translated from Italian by Rosanna Forte
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