After the Gas Board: July 1974

By Greg Michaelson

Bent in the back of the tiny car,
We bowled along dusty back roads,
Tracing groves of olives, stands of almonds,
All bound for glass jars in northern cupboards. 

At midday, sunshine smearing the chalky sky,
The Cinquecento dropped us at the service station
And drove off through camouflage fields. 

We’d hitch-hiked together since Athens,
Sleeping in orchards, in squares, in gardens,
On benches, on beaches,
On ferry boat decks. 

I had little French. He had no English.
But by now each knew when the other was hungry. 

Lugging our rucksacks,
We crossed the forecourt,
Outstaring the chained dogs
Barking from boredom. 

The entrance to the crumbling terracotta restaurant
Was bedecked with flowers.
In the main salon,
Accordion, double bass, guitar, clarinet,
Spun jaunty folk tunes.

Small children gambolled
Between the long tables
Of well scrubbed guests
Grazing on the wedding fare. 

On the high dais,
Flanked by his families old and new,
The immense elder,
Oozing from his Sunday suit,
Held court over this koan of chaos. 

The head waiter, imperious,
Uptight in button down waistcoat,
Waved us to a corner table.

We sat and glanced at the menus.
Neither of us spoke Italian.
But we knew, the head waiter knew, everybody knew,
We’d even less lire than the price of a plate of bread and oil. 

We shrugged at each other, as he’d taught me.
C’est la vie, I said.
That’s life, he said, as I’d taught him. 

As we stood up and made for the exit,
The bride’s father looked round,
Stared at us affronted
And gesticulated to the head waiter.
Sour faced, the head waiter returned us to our corner.

Worried, we sat quietly:
What had we done?
Who had we offended?
What unspoken rule
Had we transcended? 

Swathed in white muslin,
Haloed in aged lace,
The young bride, smiling,
Descended the platform
And glided towards our lonely table,
In each hand

  A steaming blue bowl
      Loaded with pasta,
          Loaded with ragu,
              Loaded with parmesan.