The opening passages of Gordon W. Dale’s new novel, What We Remember:
My final memory of my mother is at the quayside in Naples, Italy, in January, 1967. Or, rather, it is my first memory of her absence. As my sisters, my father, and I disembark from the SS Rhodesia Castle, I look back over my shoulder to the ship’s rail, but my mother isn’t there. She hasn’t even come up on deck to wave farewell. She has removed herself completely from our lives.
We proceed down the gangplank in single file, my father holding my left hand, my eldest sister, Caroline, gripping my right. Joyce, the youngest, is well out in front, far beyond handholding range, an indifferent dynamo even then. In memory, I lose sight of her at the bottom of the ramp. I see soot-stained warehouses beneath a low, menacing sky, and idle knots of stevedores, their eyes hidden behind the shadow of low-slung caps. I see myself crammed between my father and Caroline in the backseat of a battered taxi-cab. But I see nothing of Joyce. Could she have been in the second cab, the one that trailed with the baggage? Would my father have let that happen? It hardly seems possible. And yet I don’t see her, not even when we pull abruptly to the curb so I can be sick. I remember the sweet-sour sewage smell of the harbor and the acrid taste of my own vomit. I remember finding myself on my knees, my forehead resting against the cold pavement. I remember Caroline’s keening, and the toecaps of my father’s oxfords. I remember wishing I could die. But of my little sister Joyce, I remember nothing whatsoever.
When we reach the hotel, the scene descends into opera-buffo, something Pergolesi himself might have written. It seems my father has departed the ship with neither currency nor passports. Throughout our many journeys as a family, our money and documents have been safely stored in the capacious tweed purse that seldom leaves my mother’s side, and they remain there still, even though we are no longer a family. And now my father has nothing with which to pay the fare. The driver rolls his eyes and remonstrates loudly in Italian. He is joined by the driver of the second taxi and they push their faces at my father, toss their hands in the air. My father stands mute before them. A crowd forms and the driver calls upon them to witness this stupid Americano who expects to ride from the harbor to the hotel gratuito. He waves a finger under my father’s nose, threatens and cajoles. But my father stares at the ground, saying nothing.
Finally, the driver makes a show of calming himself. He puffs out a great lungful of air and wipes a hand over his face, rearranging his features into an expression of sly helpfulness. “The boat will not sail for some time Signore,” he says, “The papers can be sent for. In the meantime”—and now he eyes the Nikkormat FT hanging from my father’s neck—“Your camera; it can perhaps be used to settle the bill?”
But my father, that meekest of men, sets his jaw. “We will go back.”
And so we do, the baggage taxi bobbing in our wake.
At the quayside, Caroline and I remain in the cab while my father ascends the gangplank. What transpired when he reached the cabin my mother now shared with his replacement, Edward, I have never been able to adequately imagine. But he is back in what seems mere moments, the imprint of a slap burned onto his cheek, his eyes wet behind his glasses. He climbs into the backseat beside me, turns his face to the window and begins to sob. I too am sobbing. The taxi driver watches us with interest in the rearview mirror. Caroline catches his eye, stares him down. “All’hotel ora,” she demands, putting to good use her small command of Italian. Then she reaches across, takes the passports from my father’s hand and places them in her make-up case, fastening the clasp with a decisive click. We pull away from the curb and the Rhodesia Castle is lost from sight.