UK | 2016
Claire-Louise Bennett is the author of Pond, which was shortlisted for The Dylan Thomas Prize 2015 and has been translated into seven languages. Her stories and essays have appeared in The White Review, Harper’s, Guernica, The Irish Times and gorse, among others. She has a strong interest in the visual arts and has produced art writing for Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Nottingham Contemporary, the Tate, Paper Visual Art Journal, and 126 Artist-Led Gallery.
I believe one’s initial sense and subsequent experience of a place is determined by the hour one arrived there. When I alighted the empty platform at Sant‘Ellero on the first day of October it was dusk, the magical hour when nothing is quite as it seems – between the dog and the wolf, as the French say, and indeed thereafter I had dog days, and wolf days.
The dog days were characterised by an untroubled approach to the daily round – I satisfied my appetite, rambled in the woods, sat with dogged determination at the desk and had faith in the things I did there, enjoyed alert naps in the sun, chased flies across the study – and an overall sense of being looked after – pampered even – pervaded, so that, on those days, I felt absolutely at home. It doesn’t do though to get one’s paws too firmly under the table, or desk, one needs the spirit of the wolf to occasionally rear up and overturn one’s habits and sense of place. The shift in atmosphere once the wolf took over was apparent from the moment I blinked my eyes awake – it was as if in fact the creature had just left the bedroom.
Skittish and uncertain I’d go up to the tower’s topmost window and watch the coiling dragon-mist gradually withdraw from the valley. These were the mornings when the day was so thin the currents of the night could still be felt coursing beneath it, when the thick ancient walls of the tower became permeable and restless. At such times Santa Maddalena felt boundless and fantastic, almost between worlds.
I arrived with nothing much in mind, without knowing what I was going to work on, and so more or less immediately began keeping a diary – ‘And so I am here and it is the morning, not the first morning, the first morning was yesterday, of course.’ I wrote about the delicious things I had to eat – the tangerines, the mushrooms, the polenta, the cheese – I wrote about the insects, the flowers, the scalloped spoons, the notebooks I don’t dare open on my desk, the exemplary red lipstick I still haven’t found, how every mirror I encounter here is consistently flattering, the lizards that fall from the sky. I wrote about writing, about what it feels like, and what it feels like not to write, I wrote about feeling idiotic at lunch, I wrote about how well or how badly I slept, I wrote about what I heard during the night if I didn’t sleep – and what I dreamt about if I did.
Everything was very beautiful and changing and I loved the sounds of other people talking, they all had such completely different voices.
After a while, without much fuss, I began a new thing, incepted a new world, dipped in and out of it, felt it moving into me.
‘This is the last day – I think I am very dramatic actually. Why do I place significance on things such as the last day? There is talk of going to Arezzo in an hour and I don’t want to go – why don’t I want to go – because I want to stay here and experience the last day. Well really. Isn’t that a bit sentimental? I wonder.’
The sun was at its highest when I left Santa Maddalena. No ordinary sun of course. It was too much really. I could see too much of everything I was leaving. I think I would have preferred to have left while the dragon-mist still drew breath in the valley.
Talking about one’s time in Santa Maddalena is a bit like trying to recount a dream I realise – the essence of both is at once vivid and utterly enigmatic, deeply personal yet just like everyone else’s.
Beatrice, thank you for your warmth, kindness, intuition, and wicked sense of humour x