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You Can’t Come Home

Lorenzo MANDELLI; 

shortlisted for the DESPERATE LITERATURE
short fiction prize /

This is my mother’s voice. She is at home in northern Italy, sitting on the red couch in the attic, where the bookshelf is. I know she is alone, and I swear I can hear her looking at my books while speaking to me on the phone. Books I’ve brought back home from France, Spain, Argentina, England. And now I am here, in this pub in London, and I can hear my mother surrounded by books in languages she does not understand.

You can’t come home, she says again, you’re stuck there.

I know, but this is where I live.

I look up and see that they’ve turned on the television at the pub. I see hospital wards, masked doctors, bleary-eyed men in ties, drone images of deserted cities, and then other hospital wards and doctors and nurses or perhaps the same ones as before. They’re saying this is Italy, this is my homeland. And then I see more images of cities, all deserted, squares I wouldn’t be able to name, streets I’ve never walked down, long queues of people amongst which I attempt to recognise somebody, somebody I know, maybe an old friend or an acquaintance, or my mother, and indeed I realise that I am waiting for her face to appear, up there, on a television in a London pub, if what they’re saying is true, then surely my house should appear too, with the attic and the red couch and the books. Now numbers are being shown, the dead, the infected, and then maps, graphs, curves, predictions. There’s both a mystery and an exactitude to the way all of this is happening.

Hello, can you hear me?

Yes, sorry, I’m watching BBC news.

What are they saying?

They’re saying what everyone else is saying.

It’s crazy, isn’t it?

It is.

And then we laugh. My mother’s laughter makes the sound of paper being thrown up into the air. I feel certain, for a second, that her laughter is my homeland.

Stay safe, she says.

I say, you too.

And as I hang up, I know that something has changed, in my life, in the world perhaps. I am at another pub now, in downtown Boston, celebrating the end of the 20s. My mum rings to wish me a happy new year. It’s already 2030 here in Italy, she says. I say, good for you guys, you’re travelling in the future. When I hang up, I see that I am surrounded by people. I didn’t know any of them ten years ago. And now I love them, I hug them, I call them by their names: it’s all sorted now, ten years have gone by and it’s all sorted. A woman in a yellow dress comes my way from across the other end of the pub and kisses me. It’s midnight. The decade is over. Let’s go home, she says. By the way I kiss her back I realise that I love this woman.

And yet she will leave me. In fact, she has already left me, and I am at home in Italy, sitting on the red couch in the attic. My mother is old. I am older too—I can see it from my hands. I am crying. Why am I crying? We broke up, I tell my mother, we just broke up, and I see two darkened knots of wood in the attic floor and I see the red couch and my books, each one of them, and they lie quietly on their bookshelf and my mother is quiet too. Everything so fully brought into existence, so exact. And then I say, I am happy to be home.

Where is she? I hear my mother ask. But before I have time to answer I am walking around a cemetery. A girl is with me: she is my daughter. She speaks English with a faint American accent, and I speak Italian to her, with the accent I’ve had all my life.

You can’t come back.

Or was it: you can’t come home?

I no longer know. Thousands of days and I no longer know.

Now my homeland is my daughter, I think. And even if I know this is not entirely true, everything is going so fast I have no time to think about it: I have a dream in a hotel room in a small town near Bordeaux, I am bathing in a volcanic lake in the South of Chile, I’ve just found out I have cancer.

And then I am in Barcelona. It’s spring, and I am in a wheel- chair moving down Carrer Gran de Gràcia towards the old town. The young man who is pushing me forward is talking to me about the new European epidemic and I am reminded of the one that happened in 2020, in Italy, and across the world too, of course. The young man now wants to hear about my experience of the epidemic. Which one? The one from 2020, he says. And I would like to be able to tell him, in all honesty, that we knew that we were living through history or that nothing was ever going to be the same again or that one morning more than fifty years ago I stood at my window in London and had the knowledge of something growing in the silence outside, but now all of this comes back to me like some unspeakable fucking tide, and I look ahead and think, Barcelona is beautiful today, and then I turn my head slightly and say, I am sorry, I think I need to go back home, I think I forgot something, I am sorry.

Desperate Literature is an international bookshop in the heart of Madrid, founded in 2014. They sell books in English, French and Spanish, working to build a literary community around and through these literatures. They (normally) run weekly events with authors from around the world, and in 2019 hosted Spain’s first English language poetry festival. They first launched the Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction in 2017.  The Prize is an international attempt to recognise writers of innovative and experimental short fiction, with the aim of providing opportunities to all those shortlisted through a publishing and events programme that partners with 14 different literary organisations across Europe. The 2020 edition was judged by authors Claire-Louise Bennett, Rachel Cusk, Niven Govinden and Ottessa Moshfegh. A pamphlet collating all shortlisted stories, published by Desperate Literature, can get got here as a PDF. 

Lorenzo MANDELLI lives, writes and works in London. His story ‘Maria’ was shortlisted for The White Review short story prize 2020.

Image—still from We Cant Go Home Again (Nicholas Ray, 1973)


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