‘Surprise/after so long/of a love/I thought I had scattered it about the world’
This beautiful string of words is by an Italian poet called Giuseppe Ungaretti. This is one of his easier ones. We used to say it in the manner of Cilla Black: Surprise! It sounds just as good in her Liverpool trill, in fact. But funnier and less sincere. This was back in the day when we were at university and revising for our end of year exams and anything to get us through it helped. Small tables in the corners of rooms, a lot of smoking, endless tea, the sound of the put-upon mum next door playing nicely with her children in the garden. My friend Angela would wait for a sigh, followed by the sound of a paperback being closed (she had bionic hearing) before making her entrance with a cup of tea.
Apparently I was a bit of a diva about being disturbed back then, my train of thought snagged by an interruption. It all mattered so much; having to re-sit as I did, because I’d failed a paper the first time round, meant I spent the whole summer revising. But now I still have those poems etched in my memory which I am thankful for, as well as having a free higher education and a huge wealth of actual experiences that did not involve the world wide web.
I remember cheque-books (in the off licence: Who do I make it payable to? Cashier: It’s all right we’ve got a stamp. Me: (writing on the cheque) It’s Alright We’ve Got a Stamp LTD), mix-tapes, actual love letters, long afternoons spent dressing up, sitting up all night talking and walking home at dawn, cream teas. Watching as people were brought over on a plane to see relatives they’d given up for dead forty years earlier on Cilla Black’s Surprise! Surprise!
The poem above has meant different things to me at different times in my life. At the time, at 20, it meant: I am an intellectual and I write in pencil in the margins of books I can only buy in Grant & Cutler. Now I understand it to mean, what matters is here. It’s been here all along. Or, it’s behind you, in the case of these plums. After three growing seasons, I have taken on a fallow plot behind me, which has been producing little green plums, Victoria plums, pears, apples, damsons and rhubarb that no one has thought to or been allowed to help themselves to. I’m sure I could have and no one would have been any the wiser. To think these plums have been dropping silently into the long grass all this time to be eaten by wasps and foxes. Which is possibly why our resident fox has such loose bowels.
We don’t know what they are, a gage of some sort, but they are ripe, small and soft and full of the green juice. Avoid the ones with the caterpillars in; they feed inside ripening fruits and then mid-bite you look down and see a dark brown residue – caterpillar frass (poo). This is often accompanied by a tiny maggoty thing that rears up to meet you, with a massive smile on its face. Surprise!
I met up with Angela recently after many years and we talked about those times – my tendency to fall down stairs, our shrine to Victoria Wood, our innocence and excitement at everything. How we fell in love, platonically, with each other and how no one ever talks about that. And how we used to talk relentlessly in brackets: Hello Emma (yes, you can come in but your calves have to stay outside). Our love for Joan Hickson and Charles Hawtrey and the complete works of Marvin Gaye. Our completely exhausting silliness.
Perhaps you have to get to almost fifty to realise what an intoxicating surprise it is, that it’s still there. Better than anything, better than the future, which can exert a strange sense of threat. It’s a nice surprise to know that if you stand still long enough in one place all the best things will catch up with you. That is the hope, which last week proved true. And here is the poem in Italian, which I will endeavour to remember without resorting to my book:
‘Sorpresa/dopo tanto/d’un amore/credevo di averlo sparpagliato/per il mondo’
I stewed the plums: cover the base of a heavy pan with a film of water, add the (preferably stoned) plums and a little sugar/honey/maple syrup/nothing. I sprinkled on some ground ginger and star anise. Simmer until the plums collapse, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Put lid on and leave until morning and eat with yoghurt. Or pot up and refrigerate. Also lovely sieved and made into a purée.