I have come to stay in Amalfi. I can’t face going back to Britain—not yet—and to be here is a great relief after the swarming strangeness I encountered in Rome.
I’ve taken a room in a house on the Piazza Spirito Santo. There is a small bar downstairs, where I sit in the shade of vine leaves and drink Coke Light, or sometimes the local lemon liqueur, which tastes like the sherbet-lemon boiled sweets I used to buy as a kid in Manchester, ground up and mixed with vodka. The crusty old barman doesn’t have a word of English. It’s hard to tell his age. The flower bowls on the outdoor tables are filled with little bundles of twigs that look suspiciously like fasces to me, but I’m too polite to ask.
Amalfi is a small town nestling in a valley on the Sorrento Peninsula. This is a coast of limestone cliffs, into which the towns have been carved like seabird nesting grounds. People have adapted to living on a vertical surface: there are public staircases you can follow all the way to the next town. Nothing in Italy is new—Amalfi was a maritime power in the Middle Ages—but that sense of immense age, so oppressive in Rome, is ab- sent here. And yet much of what shaped the horror in Rome is here, all around me.
The narrow cobbled streets are always crowded with traffic, with cars and buses, lorries and darting scooters. Italians don’t drive as northern Europeans do. They just go for it: they swarm, as Peter McLachlan would have said, a mass of individuals relying on the unwritten rules of the mob to get them through.
And then there are the people. Just opposite my bar there is a school. When the kids are let out in the middle of the day—well, again, they swarm; there’s really no other word for it. They erupt into the piazza in their bright blue smocklike uniforms, all yelling at the tops of their voices. But it’s soon over. Like water draining from a sieve, they disperse to their homes or to the cafés and bars, and the noise fades.
And, of course, there is family. You can’t get away from that in Italy.
Amalfi used to be a center for making rag paper, a technique they learned from the Arabs. Once there were sixty mills here. That number has dwindled to one, but that one still supplies the Vatican, so that every papal pronouncement can be recorded forever on acid-free rag paper, now made fine enough for a computer printer to take. And that surviving Amalfi mill has been operated without a break by the same family for nine hundred years.
The swarming crowds, the thoughtless order of the mob, the cold grasp of ancient families: even I see visions of the Coalescents everywhere I look.
And I see again that extraordinary crater, collapsed in the middle of the Via Cristoforo Colombo, with the plume of gray-black tufa dust still hanging in the air above it. Workers from the offices and shops, clutching cell phones and coffees and cigarettes, peered into the hole that had suddenly opened up in their world. And the drones simply poured out of the crater, in baffling numbers, in hundreds, thousands. Obscured by the dust, they looked identical. Even now there was a kind of order to them—but nobody led. The women at the fringe would press forward a few paces, blinking at the staring office workers around them, and then turn and disappear back into the mass, to be re- placed by others, who pushed forward in turn. When it reached the edge of the road, the flowing mob broke up, forming ropes and ten- drils and lines of people that washed forward, breaking and recombin- ing, probing into doorways and alleyways, swarming, exploring. In the dusty light they seemed to blur together into a single rippling mass, and even in the bright air of the Roman afternoon they gave off a musky, fetid odor.
I suppose I’m trying to compensate. I spend a lot of my time alone, in my room, or walking in the hills that loom over the towns. But a part of me still longs, above everything else, to go back, to immerse myself once more in the Coalescents’ warm tactile orderliness. It is an unfulfilled longing that, I suspect, will stay with me until I die.
How strange that my quest to find my own family would lead me to such mysteries, and would begin and end in death.
Copyright © 2003 by Stephen Baxter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.