So far we have just been taking baby steps. For several weeks following the burglary, we went to almost any length possible to avoid both of us being out of the house at the same time. Then, once this became as impractical as it was miserable, we carefully negotiated our respective job lists to keep periods when the house had to remain empty to a minimum. Slowly we graduated to Going Out – that is to say, making trips for enjoyment rather than necessity. First came breakfast in the village, then a friends’ place for lunch. Next was an evening at a village festa, and finally a whole day out with friends. Each one a clammy-palmed act of faith; each one a nerve-jangling hurdle crossed on the long and tortuous journey towards restoring our confidence. Little by little our security checks on leaving the house have progressed from a hyper-conscious list-ticking exercise to soothing routine. Trip by trip, the anxious voices asking the whole time we are out ‘Have I remembered to…?’, ‘Did we…?’, ‘Was anyone watching…?’, ‘What if…?’ have stilled to a whisper. And the close-up, slow-motion flashbacks to the horror that greeted us as we came through the door on That Day are gradually receding, while the pleasure and comfort we always used to feel on arriving home are slowly returning.
Which meant that sooner or later we would need to face the Big One and move on from mere Going Out to proper Going Away. For a whole night. Initially just the one, you understand, but still leaving the house empty for a heart-pounding twenty-four hours. It was Mr Blue-Shirt’s idea: after a solid ten days’ demolition work ridding us of the detested pigsty once and for all, he needed a change of scene. More importantly, though, he needed to mark this important milestone and to draw a line; we both did.
“How do you feel about a trip to Spello?” he asked super-casually as he turned the sausages sizzling merrily on the barbecue.
This sweet little town, another of the Borghi più Belli d’Italia, is little more than an hour west of us and about twenty kilometres over the border into Umbria. We’ve stopped there briefly on several occasions on our way to the much bigger and better-known towns of Assisi or Perugia. These two Umbrian superstars rather overshadow modest little Spello on one level, but their proximity also enable many more people to discover Spello’s attractions than might otherwise be the case, which means that it is always humming with activity. Strolling around its pretty, higgledy-piggledy centre while deciding on the best place for a coffee we’d often said it would be nice to explore the place properly. As well as gorgeous views across the Umbrian plain to distant olive-clad hills, it has some interesting arty shops that I’d always fancied poking around in, and lots of restaurants offering Umbria’s most famous specialities, black truffles and all sorts of different salami.
“That sounds good,” I replied bravely. “We could make a day of it and have a slap-up lunch to celebrate the demise of the pigsty.” I was starting to get much better at seeing reasons for saying yes to such suggestions rather than searching for reasons to say no. “And you could definitely do with a day out.”
Mr Blue-Shirt took a swig of beer. “I meant overnight,” he said carefully, leaving the word floating in the evening warmth: ‘overnight’… I watched the letters drift and curl into the smoke rising from the barbecue into the darkness. The velvety night stared back at me.
“Well?” it asked.
The usual internal argument broke out.
“Do it!” hissed my rational self.
“I can’t!” my emotional self hissed back.
“Yes, you can!”
“No, I can’t. Not yet.”
“Well, you can’t stay cooped up here for the rest of your life. You’re going to have to go away at some point.”
“I know. It feels too soon, though. I’m not ready.”
“How do you know you’re not unless you try?”
“I just know – OK?!”
As ever, my emotional self had run out of arguments.
“Look, I’m not saying it will be easy, but now seems as good a time as any,” my rational self continued less crossly. “You’ve got a really good, concrete reason for going, and you’ll only be a hundred kilometres up the road: if you get cold feet – which I won’t let you do, by the way – you could be home in an hour.”
My emotional self shrugged; she knew when she was beaten. The stars winked at me encouragingly.
“OK,” I said, this time out loud. “Let’s do it.” Mr Blue-Shirt smiled as we clinked glasses to seal the deal, and I tried to swallow the knot that had just formed in my throat.
So we went, and of course, it was fine. Delightful, in fact. Mr Blue-Shirt had found a cosy hotel bang in the centre that oozed charm and history, and after checking in we ambled around the town, doing all the things that people normally do. We crept round echoey churches and peered into shady courtyards. We browsed in shops and ate ice-cream. We took photos of flower-filled alleys, and admired the sweeping views across the plain, with Assisi and the vast honey-coloured Basilica of St Francis in the distance. As the sky melted from cobalt to copper and then to crimson, we enjoyed some people-watching in a bustling square over aperitivi. Then as crimson faded to purple and finally to inky-blue, we ate silky, truffle-spiked pasta and slow-cooked veal cheek seated on a terrace high above the twinkling carpet of lights that filled the broad valley below. And it was bliss: not just for the food, or for the weather, or for the surroundings, but for its total, fear- and anxiety-free ‘us-ness’. It was as if normal service had finally been restored.
I caught something on the radio the other day about how people recover from various types of trauma. The solution, as the presenter put it in summing the item up, was ‘to remember to forget’, which instantly struck me as both simplistic and illogical. Surely, as soon as you say to yourself ‘Ooh, I must remember to forget about…’, then Boom! Whatever it was you were trying to forget bursts straight into your head in all its vivid, stomach-churning glory. You can’t simply remove such recollections and throw them away, slicing them from your memory like an infected appendix. It just doesn’t work like that: as Aristotle pointed out, nature abhors a vacuum. It seems to me, rather, that it is by doing things and going places, and above all by simply living life, that you can create a store of positive and pleasurable memories that will gradually replace the ugly, painful ones. As our memorable micro-holiday in Spello – and the giant leap forward it represents – perfectly illustrate. I think Aristotle would approve.