This time last year I was like a cat on hot bricks. Mr Blue-Shirt was on his way home. Not just for a quick weekend visit this time; for good. My three months alone (apart from those hasty chances to re-connect) were finally coming to an end. Three months which had been among the loneliest in my life. All the excitement of a new home in a new country and the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream, yes. But also, for the weeks before I started work, the emptiness of solitude and the limited sense of purpose that barely extended beyond ‘holding the fort’ and ‘keeping the home fires burning’. I’d done that many times before, of course, back in the ‘90s in Germany when Mr Blue-Shirt had been away with the army on six-month tours during the Balkans Conflict or on three-month exercises in Canada. But I also had a stimulating job, a social circle and a ready-made community to take part in. Here though, in those early days when everything was so very new and alien, when nothing yet came easily or smoothly, seeking out new friendships and plunging into community life with far from fluent Italian simply felt like one new thing too many when the familiarity of home was, in the absence of my soulmate, what I most craved. A home that over summer had gradually filled with our things, our memories, our ways: all collected over more than thirty years of ‘us’-ness.
On top of that, creating a life here together had been a shared dream built over many years, so we wanted to make new friends as a couple and discover new places together, meaning suddenly starting to go solo just didn’t sit right with me. This possibly misguided means of keeping the faith came at a price, however. The delay in starting work nibbled away at my self-esteem and the despondency of self-imposed solitude, perversely, made me actively shy away from being among people. Seeing other couples, families and friends out and about and enjoying each other’s company only made the loneliness more painful than ever and left me feeling like a penniless hungry child with her face pressed against the window of a brightly lit sweet shop. Even worse, though, was coming home to a silent, empty house that was exactly as I had left it, with no one else there to leave a mug on the table, a sweater over a chair, or to leave the imprint of their body on a cushion. A house which became part fortress, part prison. I spent those long weeks tottering on the edge of a black hole and only those precious flying visits stopped me from falling into its melancholic depths.
Not that Mr Blue-Shirt had had it any easier. He had single-handedly had to pack up the forge, workshop and office and finish clearing the house while also carrying out a handover of the business to the young blacksmith who had bought the place – and, of course, completing the sale of the house and business itself. The pressure was immense and it seemed there simply weren’t going to be enough hours in the day to get everything done in time. He did it, though, of course. But his total exhaustion made me fearful for his safety on the long drive home, although having Mimi with him for company along the way gave me some reassurance. Her placid manner and unquestioning affection, her gentle purr and warm white fur had done so much in those final weeks to provide some comfort and ease the stress. All that was now finally coming to an end, though. The sale had gone through, the keys handed over, the last boxes loaded and my travelling companion was on his way home for good to join me on our Italian adventure.
I had a map of Europe spread out on the dining room table so I could plot his progress from UK and over the Channel to Calais, then across France and Belgium to Aachen for his first overnight stop, although fatigue left him impervious to the attractions of its famous Christmas market. Then down through Germany the next day, snow showers briefly slowing his progress. Every couple of hours I calculated where he was likely to be, willing him to take a break as he had promised, to give me a call and let me know that all was well. In between these brief exchanges, I passed from room to room, repeatedly checking that everything was looking as homely and welcoming as possible. At last, as dusk thickened into night, the phone squawked into life one more time: “Hi! It’s me! I got here a few minutes ago.” I sensed the relief in his voice. “All safely parked up and checked in and Mimi is already curled up on the bed!” He had made it safely to Füssen at the northern edge of the snow-sprinkled Bavarian Alps for his final overnight stop. “I’m off for a shower, some food, a beer – then bed!”
The next morning it was on into Austria, as white and twinkly as a Christmas card, and the long ascent to the Brenner Pass – while I eased my restlessness with a run to the village and back in the clear winter air. Then finally down into Italy and the welcoming sight of southern sunshine as I showered and changed and dried my hair. “I’m well past Verona and am now somewhere between Modena and Bologna” crackled Mr Blue-Shirt’s voice over his hands-free gadget a couple of hours later. In the meantime, I fetched wood, filled Mimi’s food bowl and sorted out her litter tray. Nesting instincts at full throttle, I primped and tidied and cooked and at last the call came through. “I’m just having a coffee at Rimini, then it’s onto the Adriatica!” I could hear the anticipation in his voice – that first glimpse of the sea always lifted the spirits on the long trek south – and I punched the air. He was nearly at the Autostrada del Sole, the motorway that hugs the coast as far as Bari – and that leads to within twenty minutes of our door. As the sun dipped behind the mountains in a riot of red and crimson, I finally folded the map, its job now done. I turned the lights on in every room, but this time left the shutters open so the house itself could beam in greeting. I checked my watch and peered out into the dying embers of the day. Not long now. The oven was on, the table set, the fizz was in the fridge. I washed the pans and plumped the cushions and peered out into the gathering dusk and checked my watch. I fiddled and paced, turned on the music and lit the candles and lit the fire and…
“Hellooo! I’m home!”