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Norman Jope

Umbrella Men

The bright blue sky of Rome has turned to a blitzkrieg of water-bombs. I hurry to Santa Maria Del Popolo… rain flooding my carrier bag, my cagoule, my pockets, my shoes, my trousers, my soul. In the dim cold church, I attempt to keep warm by lighting up the Caravaggios with a pocketful of euros. Other visitors keep their hands in their pockets, perhaps too cold to release them, and the brilliant shadows are dulled in seconds.

The effect of the vigorous awakening of spring is absent as I tramp down the Via Del Corso, past empty boutiques that each seem to sell a single watch or handbag. I’m stranded where no buses or Metro trains can save me – it’s my fault entirely for misjudging the length of this street. I turn to papier-machė, as does my guidebook, and I can only hope that I make it as far as I Feltrinelli without dissolving into the fish-scale pavements.

In that divinest climate, and the new life with which it drenches the spirit there are Africans and Asians at fifty-metre intervals. Each of them stands beneath a brightly-coloured umbrella, holding a stash of the same umbrellas. They are the active equivalents of the lost souls I saw on the bus from the airport, on the approach road to Termini… or the man I passed in the station concourse who gave me the saddest, most bewildered look I have ever received in my life.

It’s too windy, I decide, for an umbrella… I mistrust them, having been brought up in one of Europe’s wettest and windiest cities. In my childhood they were blown out in hours or minutes, on one occasion before I’d even reached the end of my street.

So I pass the umbrella men, thinking only of the narratives that have brought them here to hawk for euros… of the waste of their potential and the destruction of their hopes. Even to intoxication I keep walking, all the way to the Victor Emmanuel Monument and across to I Feltrinelli where I use up my remaining coins to gain entrance to the toilets.

There, I extract my sodden guide-book and turn on the dryer repeatedly, placing my head and hands beneath it and even to intoxication switching it on again and again. Shelley’s ghost has snaffled the bright blue sky for himself. The umbrella men stand in the cold grey rain, and ward off falling water-bombs with the patience of anchorites.




I'm woken at four by a shout from the deeper circles of disquiet. Collecting myself like fluff on a jumper, I remember who I am and tune in to my name once more - leaving behind the nocturnal city that I've spliced together from a prehistoric childhood at the back of my brain. These days, I piss a little intermittently, especially when woken from sleep - so I stand there, swaying, in the semi-darkness. Outside, there are already geographies of birdsong... stretching from tree to tree, from hedge to hedge, from county to county to the eastern shores where soft cliffs crumble and the ghosts of Swinburne and Sebald muse in dream-time. This is an alien world in which I have no purchase, nor the rest of my species - each bird is a signalling star in a firmament of song. This is how it will be without me, I think drowsily. This is how it will be without us, when our blaring traffic has come to a scrap-heap halt. I return to my bed, resisting the urge to dress and leave my home to stand in that world - to be no more than an ape-sized gap in the flow.

Copyright © Norman Jope, 2019