Fiction / Rachele Salvini
:: Unremarkable ::
My first remarkable moment in London involved witnessing a cat beating the shit out of a fox right in front of my new flat. I knew Giorgio would like the story, but I didn’t call him. I didn’t even take a picture for him.
I didn’t live in the outskirts of the city—I rented a tiny room in an alley in Stratford, just a few steps away from the tube station, the Stratford Shopping Centre, and the West Ham Stadium. Not exactly a place where I expected to see such an interesting display of wildlife. But I came from a town on the west coast of Italy, and I didn’t know shit. I was one of the many Italians leaving good weather, espresso, and lasagna behind to try to find some luck in London.
Giorgio was still in Italy. We hadn’t actually decided if we were breaking up or not; it was more of an open-ended experiment. He didn’t want to come to London with me, and we didn’t like the idea of being long-distance indefinitely, but neither of us had the guts to break up.
We had met in college, years before. We had fallen in love though we didn’t want to.
Giorgio and I were happy together, him studying cinema, me studying literature. We talked about art and music, and we laughed all the time. We went to Frankie’s, our favorite dive bar in town, which was open only from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. We drank gin and tonics and kissed in front of everyone and danced like everyone was watching us because of how radiantly in love we were. Then, by day, we would go to the seaside; by night, when we didn’t go out, we hid in his grandparents’ garage, watched movies, made love, and smoked dope. We had bought a small bed from a thrift store for ten euros. We just wanted to hide. We didn’t care about bed bugs.
For three years, all that had been enough. Then, after graduation, our lives had to start. We weren’t special: people moved to other places all the time and faced the decision of what to do with their relationships. Italians were moving all around Europe, especially graduates with humanities degrees, somewhat deeply underappreciated even in a country that had built its fame on art. Giorgio spent his days lying on the couch, watching TV and sending resumes around, but no one would call. I wanted to work in publishing. London seemed the right place to be, but he wasn’t ready to come.
“We’ll see,” Giorgio said, and kissed me good-bye.
Witnessing the cat beating up the fox seemed a remarkable moment—more than when I saw Millennium Bridge for the first time—because it made me realize how much I didn’t know about London. The cat growled and barely moved, its ears back. Whenever the fox made any movement, either to dab or leave, the cat would stalk forward and sink its claws in the scrawny fur of the fox. I stood there, just looking at them. They seemed unconcerned by my presence. I didn’t know foxes would let humans so close. I didn’t know cats could beat the shit out of foxes.
At some point I even wondered if I was just hallucinating. It seemed likely, on the day I had started my job as a barista at Caffè Nero, a coffee shop chain. After my first shift, I had gone to get groceries, trying not to fall into the easy trap of buying Italian pre-cooked meals that reminded me of home from the picture on the wrapping but would remind me that I actually wasn’t home as soon as I’d try a spoonful.
As I watched the cat and the fox in silence, I thought of a remarkable moment in Italy—Giorgio and I were walking on the seaside. I was wearing a blouse, but a crisp breeze came suddenly from the ocean and made my hands crawl up my sleeves. Giorgio was telling me about London, giving me all his reasons for not coming with me. He was sure that Brexit was going to happen, and the smug British assholes would kick us all out. London, he said—as if he knew—was turning into a European copy of New York City, the geographical embodiment of capitalism. He went on and on, keeping his eyes on the ocean; the wind didn’t seem to bother him at all. His hands dangled slightly at every step he took. I told him I just really wanted to work in publishing. I told him that I wasn’t sure Brexit was going to happen, and I didn’t know what it would entail either. I didn’t know how Giorgio could be so sure about a whole country’s attitude toward economy pacts, immigration regulations, and so on. I also didn’t know why Brits would want to kick other fellow Europeans out. I didn’t know why anyone would want to kick anyone out.
But Giorgio went on, telling me that he’d rather stay home with people he loved and save money in order to move to a better place in the future, and eventually have a better life. “You don’t have to hate your life to have a career,” he said. I immediately knew that I would remember that line as remarkable. “Maybe,” I replied, shivering. An unremarkable answer.
When I saw the cat and the fox, I had barely slept in days, haunted by the thoughts of leaving home, my mother, and, of course, Giorgio—only to find a lousy job as a barista at Caffé Nero in Piccadilly Circus.
Maybe Giorgio was right. That morning I had served an endless amount of watered-down coffees to British yuppies who filled their mouths with Italian words—venti, grande, macchiato, espresso, cappuccino—but couldn’t pronounce any of them. They complained about my coffee: too bitter. I smiled back and made their coffee again in less than two minutes, under the gelid eyes of a spotty British assistant manager. I bit my inner cheeks, my gaze buried in the grates of the huge coffee machine, trying to hold on to the memory of waking up to the smell of my mother’s espresso. She prepared it in ten minutes, with a simple coffee maker. No fancy machines: she just placed a tiny metal percolator on the old-ass stove. She had taught me how to switch on the gas and use a match to start the ring of blue fire. Extremely dangerous, yet totally worth it. It was our secret; I felt like the primitive man discovering fire.
I really thought about texting Giorgio to tell him about my first shift or the cat beating up the fox. Eventually, the fox ran away. I dragged my groceries upstairs, panting and trying to ignore the smell of piss on the stairs and the bones of fried chicken wings abandoned on the steps.
Giorgio called me the morning of June 23, 2016. I had been in London for a month, and Brexit debates were all over the news. People couldn’t stop wondering if Britain was actually going to leave the EU. The question was, in a way, personal. I wonder what those British yuppies who complained about my bitter coffee thought. They would gladly travel to Italy in the summer and drink our espressos, sit in our bars in front of the seaside, sigh with satisfaction and say how great our weather was, how cheap everything was. Then they’d go back home and vote against or for leaving us behind.
Still, for some reason, I didn’t feel like Brexit was personal at all. I kept making coffees, and making them again if they came back, “too bitter.” I learned English, sent out my resume, and hoped for something better to come. Giorgio kept saying that he was “looking around.” I wasn’t sure what he meant.
Then, that morning in June, he called. I was sleeping, but he sounded excited. It was the first time he called me before I was up. I usually got up early in the morning to go to work and cover the 6 a.m. shift at the coffee shop. “Hey. What’s up?” I asked, my voice raspy.
“I’m at Frankie’s with the guys,” he said, the accent from our hometown sounding estranged to me. I could hear the chaos in the background—the music, and the hysterical laughter of Frankie’s drunken crowd. They weren’t done dancing, even though the sun was probably up. “Guess what,” Giorgio went on.
I threw my legs out from under the duvet. It was cold. Out of the window, London’s sky was white, as every morning. “What?”
“Brexit fucking happened,” Giorgio cried, enthralled. “I told you so!”
I was surprised. I had felt so bombarded with headlines, questions and unsolicited opinions for a whole month that I had forgotten when the referendum was actually going to happen. The days were all the same.
Giorgio laughed. I didn’t understand the fun part of it. The possibility of Brexit was one of the reasons why he had decided not to come to London in the first place.
“They voted Leave?” I asked. I glanced out of the window again. I could see only the neon lights of the Stratford Shopping Centre piercing the fog in the distance.
“Yeah! Crazy, right?” he went on. “But I knew it. Remember? I predicted this shit.” I heard someone yell in the background but couldn’t work out what they said.
“We were making bets last night,” Giorgio went on. His voice was shaking with enthusiasm, but maybe he was just drunk. “The manager at Frankie’s organized a Brexit-themed drinking game, and I won five shots of tequila. It was so fun. Hopefully you’ll be back here the night of the American election. If Donald Trump wins, I swear the world will fucking collapse.” I heard him take a drag from his cigarette. “You have to be here. We’ll have so much fun, like the old times. Oh—wait—someone just brought pizza.”
I heard some muffled sounds in the phone, and I pictured him staggering drunkenly to go get his slice of pizza.
I pulled my phone from my ear and looked at the time. My alarm would go off soon.
“I don’t think I’ll be there for the American election,” I said.
“What?” Giorgio asked, his mouth full of pizza.
I saw my face in the reflection of the window. I looked like shit even before starting the day, my skin blotchy, my hair a bit greasy. I tried to imagine my mother’s espresso, the blue ring of fire on the stove, the smell of burnt matches, and then the scent of coffee creeping up the stairs.
Instead, for some reason, I thought that this was another remarkable moment, like the time the ocean wind made my hands crawl up my sleeves, like when I saw the cat beating the shit out of the fox in front of my flat.
“Why are you so happy?” I asked.
There was a silence.
“What do you mean?” Giorgio asked after a while. He wasn’t chewing his pizza anymore.
I looked at my feet on the cold tiled floor of my room. The wrapping of some pre-cooked ravioli stood out from my trash can. I felt a pang of disgust, like I was going to be sick, but didn’t talk. I wasn’t sure I knew what I wanted to say.
“What do you mean?” Giorgio asked again.
My phone alarm went off, piercing my ear. I disabled it. I still didn’t have an answer for Giorgio. Why are you so happy, I repeated in my head.
“Why am I so happy about Brexit?” he asked.
Another pang of disgust. “Maybe,” I said.
An unremarkable answer. I hung up. I got up and walked to the kitchen to shove a cup of instant coffee in the microwave.
From the writer
:: Account ::
I wrote this story as a response to my experience living in London during the Brexit campaign. At the time I was also involved in a painful long-distance relationship, like the narrator of this story. While this is fiction, many scenes are drawn from my personal experience: I remember seeing a cat beating the shit out of a dog in front of my dirty-ass apartment in Stratford; I also remembered all the times my ex called from Italy when he was having fun with his friends, while I was lonely and miserable, working hard to get somewhere. Mostly, I wanted my story to be about young European immigrants heading to the United Kingdom; I wanted to write about the hopes and dreams of the ones who look for luck somewhere far from home and have to negotiate their departure with their ties with their home. While my experience was not as traumatic as the one of refugees, it did affect me greatly. The political background of this story is obviously the Brexit campaign, which I regard as one of the first steps toward the storm of craziness that the past few years have been.
Rachele Salvini is an Italian woman based in the U.S., where she’s doing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. She spent most of her life in Italy, and she writes in both English and Italian. Her work in English has been published or is forthcoming in Prime Number Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Takahe Magazine, Sagebrush Review, BULL, and others. She’s also a translator, and her translation work has appeared or is forthcoming in several literary journals, including Lunch Ticket.