A rare experiment in telling the truth. Published in Foxhole in 2015.
I was in Urbino because my girlfriend at the time was there attending a conference on atmospheric chemistry. I went along because I had nothing more important to do. Urbino is a small, walled hill city in central Tuscany, three bus-rides inland from Rimini. As I remember it the sun shone every day. I remember a waitress talking laughingly and at length in Italian about the ants on the tablecloth – formicari, did she say? – before realising that we spoke no Italian. I remember a rough-looking man with a heavy blue chin posing in the piazza with his tame jackdaw. I remember being drunk and having a stand-up row with my girlfriend outside the wine shop. Afterwards she went back to the hotel and I went into the wine shop. The wine seller and I talked awkwardly about the Italian motorcyclist Rossi, whose picture was pasted up behind the counter, and I made him top up my coffee with good whisky. He abhorred the waste. He was right, of course.
One afternoon I was sitting by myself outside the café on the piazza, drinking glasses of beer and cups of coffee, one after the other. I was wondering how to get the beautiful and sad-eyed waitress to stop bringing me a tray of pastries with each beer. So far all I had said to her was ‘Come si dice ‘another’?’, because it’s important in a foreign country to know how to say ‘another’. It was mercilessly hot. I didn’t mind that too much. I had a glass of beer and nothing much to do.
Out in the middle of the sunburnt yellowstone piazza something small and dark was kicking up dust. I had to squint to make it out. It was a swift – one of those dark, arrow-shaped birds of the upper air. Swifts never land on the ground. This one had, I didn’t know why. Collision, confusion, sickness, injury. I watched it for a minute. Its long wings flailed in the dust. It looked like a broken model aeroplane. Because they never land on the ground, swifts aren’t equipped for taking off from the ground. They have useless little feet.
It would be hot out there in the middle of the piazza.
I put down my beer. I was very aware of the possibility of making a spectacle of myself. Perhaps grounded swifts were a common sight in Italy. Perhaps after a minute the swift would find its own way back to the dazzling sky from which it had fallen. I imagined the man with the tame jackdaw laughing at me. No-one was looking at the struggling swift. I stood up, and strolled nonchalantly out into the middle of the piazza.
The swift’s useless little feet gripped my forefinger readily enough. I’d learned to pick up my mum’s budgie this way: nudging my finger against the tops of the bird’s feet until it climbed aboard. The feathers of the swift’s throat, beneath its gape, were pale cream. It was a juvenile. Perhaps it hadn’t learned yet not to land on the ground. It was learning now.
I tried to throw it. I brought my arm round in an uncertain upward sweep with the intention of launching the swift into the air. But the swift stayed on my finger. It yawed like a starling on a clothesline but it stayed there.
The swift probably needed to fall before it could fly, I supposed. Hang-gliders go downwards before they go upwards. I looked around for a suitable eminence while the swift’s little claws on my finger gripped and released, gripped and released. There were stone steps to the south of the square, leading to a terrace where the man with the jackdaw was posing for photographs. I didn’t want to do this in front of tourists with cameras. To the north was the Duc’s palace and a broad road winding uphill towards the university. Behind me was the café. Ahead of me a footpath passed under an arch between two stone buildings. The building on the left had a protruding sloped buttress that jutted from the wall to a height of about four feet. Still bearing the swift on my forefinger, I climbed on to the buttress.
I was about to swing my arm and reattempt the launching of the swift when a man on a bicycle drew up beneath me and lowered his feet from his pedals. He looked up at me. He wore glasses and was probably in his mid-thirties. I – in shorts and a polo-shirt, balanced on a buttress with a swift on my finger – looked down at him.
‘Do you know where the Post Office is?’ he asked, in English, in an English accent.
‘No, I’m afraid not,’ I said.
‘Okay,’ he said. He wheeled his bicycle through a half-circle and cycled off across the square.
I threw the swift.
It left my finger, whirred for a second in the air, then fell to the dust. Its wings beat against the paving stones. I jumped down from the buttress. Still too low. Still not enough empty air for the swift.
A short way up ahead the arched passageway opened out on to a narrow road. If you crossed the road you could look out over the city wall. On this side the wall was only about three feet high but on the other side it fell away to a drop of a hundred feet or more. Varicoloured rooftops at many different angles of inclination spread across the plain below. There were church towers beyond the rooftops and pineforest beyond the church towers.
I carried the swift to the wall. I looked down. I knew that falls for small creatures weren’t the same as falls for big creatures or people. I’d read something about the physics of it. But I guessed that a fall as high as this one might be the same whatever size of creature you were. I said something inconsequential to the anxious swift and looked over at the sunlit church towers. Small birds described erratic ellipses around the central, largest tower. I could hear their screaming. Swifts, of course.
There was a chance that all I was going to do was throw a swift to its death. I didn’t want that. It might not be as bad for the swift as death by dehydration or alleycat in the burning piazza but still I didn’t want it.
I threw the swift.
My relationship with the girlfriend who had been attending the conference didn’t last. I know the Italian for ‘another’: un otro, or something like that. I don’t know where the Post Office is in Urbino or whether the man on the bicycle found the Post Office. I don’t know why he thought I was the best person to ask where the Post Office was (I still wonder). I know the swift made it. After a half-second’s foundering in freefall the swift somehow found purchase in the air. It stopped falling and began flying. It flew towards the church towers, but before it reached them I lost sight of it against the varicoloured rooftops.