“No you mustn’t thank me. I must thank you for having given me the chance to help you.”
Luigi could say nothing else.
He clasped my hand in his, pulled me towards him, and hugged me tight.
No holding back the tears rolling down his cheeks:
Wretched that I was leaving so soon, even though he knew there was no way I could stay.
For my journey had just begun – only seventy kilometres into my ten week solo ride from Valletta to Medjugorje and back so I couldn’t afford to linger in any one place no matter how good hearted and generous the people I met along my way.
But I was not yet free to go.
I heard a whispered request from the top of the stairs:
“Say a prayer for us to the Virgin when you arrive at Medjugorje.”
Maria too couldn’t bear seeing me go.
She turned away fast and disappeared upstairs as her husband kept holding on to my hand reluctant to give me up into the night.
“When will you return to us? Promise me you shall return.”
Only two days earlier I had cycled into Monterosso Almo at 6.30 a.m. after an all night ride from the fishing port village of Pozzallo on the southwest coast of Sicily.
Ages seemed to have passed since my last visit to this quintessential rustic hamlet eight years back.
How things had changed with me!
And how I couldn’t help yearning for those wild and carefree days when not so very long ago I had cycled into Monterosso one mid-afternoon in scorching summer heat.
Shrugging off the sun’s threat to my health with occasional quick, snatched smears of sunblock across my face, arms and legs and ignoring the ominous first signs of insidious skin damage – those harsh and abrupt tan lines slashing across my thighs and arms and the zebra stripes running down my scalp.
I felt invincible and never once doubted I could keep going on in this manner for as long as I ever chose to do so.
But make no mistake – cancer happens. Slowly. But it does happen.
Seven years after my first ride into Monterosso a pitch black four millimetre mole on my left shin turned out to be a stage one malignant melanoma lesion and everything changed after that – all at one go.
There’d be no further cycling in the sun. Not with short sleeves and lycra shorts, nor even with full length pants and long sleeved shirts. The risk I’d be running would be simply too high. For at least five years I’d have to keep up with regular hospital visits for a full skin exam and a scrutinising inspection of my surgical scars. Of course I’d also have to self check all of my skin thoroughly once a month for the rest of my life.
Four weeks after I saw Maria and Luigi for the last time I cycled into Bosnia at Ivanica.
Exactly one year had gone by since my melanoma wide excision surgery. What a way to hit back at the cancer and keep moving forward!
But I could never have done it alone:
Luigi had offered me free flat accommodation when I happened to have chanced upon him on the street the very first time we met and got to know each other.
He had immediately understood my predicament – I couldn’t stay out in the sun looking for somewhere to stay and there was no place at all in Monterosso that day.
Every bed and breakfast in the village was booked solid for the next few days.
8 a.m. and I was about to cycle out of Monterosso having completely given up finding a room – the last hairpin turn and I’d be out of the village faced with twenty further kilometres of rugged hill terrain in sweltering heat and steeply rising UV levels.
No way I could avoid such a disheartening debacle after a whole night out on the road.
Or so it seemed to me.
But climbing up the hill on the opposite side of the road, and right at the point when I had lost all hope of staying in Monterosso, two elderly men were returning from their morning stroll around the valley walking trails encircling the village.
One last fling at hope.
One last snatching at straws.
I dashed across the road and braked to a dead stop almost blocking the men’s path upwards into the village.
It took me less than a minute to blurt out my story – why I must stay out of the sun and how I must stop cycling.
Could they perhaps suggest trying for a room anywhere close by in the village?
Any place I might have missed in spite of all I had asked and checked with people on the street?
“You can stay at my son’s flat if you wish.”
Dumbfounded and I must have showed it:
Luigi’s friend lightly touched my left arm and said:
“Don’t worry, he means to help you. Go with him.”
10 a.m. Someone is knocking at the front door of my ground floor two bedroom apartment.
It’s Luigi’s friend.
“I brought these, I thought you’d need them.”
He put a pair of lavender scented bathroom towels into my arms.
And he shook my hand long and hard before he left.
“It’s from the heart you see.”
I never saw him again.
David Bugeja All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) 2016 All rights reserved