For a few years I lived in the Trastevere district of Rome. I rode a bicycle to work and bought groceries at the market. I lived in a flat at the top of a cobbled alley. All the buildings in the alley were painted a slightly different shade of terracotta; ivy grew on the walls and hung down from the rooves. Below my flat was a small restaurant with four tables that the owner placed outside in the alleyway every evening. Flowers grew in pots under the windowsills.
My flat was small. I had just a bedroom, a bathroom, a living area and a kitchen. The roof was low and the floors were wooden and bare. In winter an old heater ran early in the morning and again in the evening. In summer I closed the shutters to keep out the heat.
I had many neighbours, but the one nearest me was an old man called Niccolo. His kitchen window opened right next to mine; we could hear each other moving about through our kitchen wall. Niccolo had lived in the same flat for many years. His wife died some time before I arrived, but he was visited often by his family and friends. Most days in the afternoon he went down to sit in the street and talk with the old men of the neighbourhood. He was always handsomely dressed in long pants, suspenders and a collared shirt. Sometimes he wore a beret.
At dawn each day Niccolo rose, opened his shutters, and watered the flowers under his windowsill. He considered his flowers his friends, and I often heard him speaking to them. As he watered, he sang his flowers arias, chosen according to his mood and the mood of the morning. In the bright mornings of spring he sang ‘Funiculì, Funiculà’. On chilly winter mornings, he sang ‘Che Gelida Manina’.
Niccolo’s singing irritated me. I was a carouser in those days, prone to staying out late. Niccolo’s singing often disturbed the first hours of my rest, and I found it difficult to sleep again after he had woken me up. I would be tired and irritable all day.
Then the pandemic came to Rome, and everything was shut down. All at once, the city fell silent. People stayed home; no one gathered in the streets or the marketplaces; the restaurants were empty and so were the bars. The only shops still open were a mini-market selling dry food and old vegetables, and the pharmacy on the corner. The people fell silent, too. All I could hear in the endless afternoons was the humming of electric wires, the whispering of the wind, and from time to time the faraway sound of a siren.
But Niccolo continued to sing to his flowers each morning. I woke up early now, since there was nothing for me to do at night, and I lay in bed, waiting to hear Niccolo fill the watering can at his tap, open his window, and sing to his plants. I looked forward to hearing him sing as all lonely people look forward to moments of incidental human contact. I treasured Niccolo’s voice as a child treasures the voice of his mother. And I discovered that his voice was really quite good. I’d never noticed it before, because I had never listened, but his voice was true and full, and full of meaning. He was gifted.
A month went by in this way. Then a morning came when Niccolo did not sing. I waited and waited, but his voice never came. Nor did he sing the next morning, nor the morning after that. I assumed that because of money or loneliness he’d moved out of his flat and gone to live with his son. I missed him more than I expected to.
Two weeks later a letter was placed under my door. It was from Niccolo’s son. It said that Niccolo had caught the virus and passed away in hospital. Funerals were prohibited at that time, so Niccolo’s family had chosen to set aside one hour the next morning to gather in their homes and remember Niccolo’s life. The letter said that if I had been a friend of Niccolo’s, then I was welcome to join the remembrance from wherever I happened to be. No prayers would be turned down, and though we could not be together in body, we could still be together in spirit, which was more important to Niccolo now.
I hardly slept that night. The next day I rose at dawn, went to my window, opened the shutters, and sang Caruso to Niccolo’s flowers. I do not have a fine voice like Niccolo, but I did not need to, either, since as I was singing I heard shutters opening up and down the street all around me, and the voices of my neighbours rose to meet my own. Together we raised Niccolo’s song to the sky.
Cover by Sara Darcaj