Virginia Baily, author of Early One Morning, pays tribute to the woman who inspired her love of Rome.
My aunt Paula, who is also my godmother and is only 13 years and 7 months older than me, left to work in Paris when I was seven, moved from there to Rome a few years later, and has not lived in the UK since. She speaks six languages, including Arabic. The fact of having her as my aunt has expanded my horizons. It is because of her that I went to Rome when I was sixteen and fell in love in such an enduring way that the city itself became a protagonist in my novel, Early One Morning.
Usually when we went to stay with our grandparents when we were kids, I shared the back bedroom with my brothers and my mother slept in Paula’s former bedroom, the box room at the front of the house. Sometimes, though, a different arrangement was made and I was allowed to sleep there in the single bed with the lumpy counterpane and the bedside light attached to the headboard that gave a pinkish glow to the room when the curtains were drawn.
I loved that little room. It was a microcosm of Paula-ness.
Above the bed hung a painting an artist friend of Paula had done, a kind of cubist depiction of bottles at odd angles. On the dressing table were two empty phials of perfume, a tube of talcum powder and a woven basket containing oddments of jewellery that she had left behind. I used to sift endlessly through the necklaces and earrings, dangling a lone silver loop over my ear and winding broken strings of beads around my neck. There was a stub of lipstick that I would smear on my lips. Most exciting of all was a pair of high heeled golden sandals that Paula had worn to my parents’ wedding. I would shuffle up and down grandma’s landing in these sandals, curling my toes to keep them from sliding off, wondering when my feet would grow big enough to fill them.
These things – the scent, the golden shoes, the strange painting – were part of Paula’s exotic otherness. They also signaled her absence and were both a comfort and an education to me.
Whenever I call that painting to mind, it comes accompanied by another picture, the one that hung in the back bedroom at Grandma’s house: Jesus, a forever forbearing and gentle look on his face, holding back his robe to reveal his exposed and bleeding heart. In the association of these two images, in their physical proximity and their attitudinal distance, in the differing worldviews they offered, resides the role Paula had in my life. A voice from afar that offered a different commentary, that challenged the absolutes of Roman Catholicism and that said: ‘How about looking at it from another angle?’
Throughout my childhood, she was an immensely glamorous figure who occasionally swooped into our lives with an iconoclastic clatter and then disappeared again to her other, foreign life. So when I finally went to visit her in Rome, aged 16, I was ripe for the experience.
That first night in Rome, Paula had invited a group of friends round to welcome us, my brother and I, a cosmopolitan, Bohemian international bunch of twenty and thirty-somethings. Although our plane was delayed and we arrived late in the evening, in darkness, they had not started the meal. They had waited for us. More even than the food – an extraordinary and delicious feast, flavours of things that I could not yet name, but among them olives, bread that you tore rather than cut and copious red wine – was the fact that they had waited. The conviviality of it, the honouring of guests, the elevated place given to food and the sharing of it, was mind-expanding.
In the morning, I opened the shutters and there was the square, Piazza Costaguti laid out below me in all its crumbling, golden glory. There was the smell of the bakers across the road, the hammering of the cobblers just below, the bustle, the noise of people talking, louder, less apologetic, more musical, more public than at home. And there was me. 16 year old me in my nightie at the window breathing it in, gilded by it.
There is a section in my novel when my young British character, Maria, who has recently discovered her Italian heritage and is in Rome for the first time, sits in front of the Pietà in St Peters. She is pondering Michelangelo’s reflections on sculpture, how he said: ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ She has the idea that her Italian side is similarly contained within her, innate, with only a bit of chiseling required to allow its emergence.
Before I invented Maria, I too had had the sensation of finding myself there in Rome, a more luscious me, and a notion that this other version already resided there, as if she had gone before.
Paula provided that introduction, my beloved and exotic aunt, because she had made Italy her home and I was always welcome. So when I went, I wasn’t a tourist but a sort-of resident. It behove me to learn the language as soon as I could and acquire the other attributes that befitted my sort-of-Italian self – an ability to twirl spaghetti round my fork, to eat cake for breakfast, to prefer my bottled water ‘lightly fizzy’. To care deeply about shoes, to raise my voice in public and remain unabashed as I did so and to disdain cappuccino after eleven in the morning.
The essence of Rome, of me in Rome aged sixteen and a half, is held in a smell I associate with Paula’s kitchen in the flat where she lived in the ghetto. It is a combination smell made up as far as I can tell of basil, olive oil, camomile, lavazza coffee and the very particular odour of Italian gas. Because it is a fusion, or an infusion, and so not simple to replicate, it is rare enough never to have lost its potency. One whiff and I am there. It picks me up and hurls me through time and space to a moment that encapsulates my youth, when my nerve ends tingled with new experience, budding sexuality and sensory overload. A moment when I sashayed through the streets of Rome as (almost) grown men clutched their hands to their hearts and pretended to faint at my beauty and when I rolled the unknown syllables of Italian around my mouth knowing I would make them mine one day.
I have my aunt Paula to thank for this richness in my life.
Each time I visit I go back to the old places that I have loved since I was sixteen – Piazza Navona, the Spanish steps, Trastevere, Campo de Fiori – and I never fail to throw a coin in the Trevi fountain just in case. But we also always do something new – we share a passion for old Italian movies, for Pasolini and Fellini and for newer ones, Nanni Moretti and Paolo Sorrentino amongst others. We swap books, see exhibitions, go to talks, listen to live music. I never tire of Rome and neither does my aunt.
Early One Morning is out now in paperback from Fleet – a new imprint from Little, Brown. Follow Fleet on twitter for latest news: @fleetreads