The Italian RomanceAuthor: Joanne Carroll
Featured in the July, 2005 magazine
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One thing I know for sure is that whoever she is, this woman who knows my family, I do not want to meet her in full view of a voracious pack of strangers. I get up. I must have lost my balance, for whatever-his-name-is has grabbed my arm to steady me. I pull away without a word and walk towards the gardenia bed. It's a quiet spot, partly shaded by the overhang of the roof. The bed separates the flagged stone terrace from the miraculously green lawn. I could lie down on that greenness, and feel its dampness on my cheek.
'Lilian,' I hear Margaret say, 'where are you running off to?' She is behind me. 'I've got her,' she says. I turn slowly. Margaret is flushing from an infill of wine. I am trying to keep my gaze directly on her, to examine the left side of her neck which has caught the sun a little too much today, a little redness, a little rawness. I raise my sight so I can be abhorred by the tidal swim of her eyes, always her dead giveaway even as she manages to walk erect and in a straight line.
I can hear the other woman's breathing. Her presence is so overpowering that I feel my own chest crushed by it. I now attempt to look at her. I can manage, with a laboured forcing of the sinews in my neck, to take in the bodice of her dress and above it the pale honey skin marred by a few, not many, large freckles. So terribly familiar. I know it. I know it in my bones. I feel a silence falling on me like rain. I am silenced, and sure, and standing in front of her as naked as Eve. There isn't another thing I can do.
She says, 'I am Francesca.'
And with her words, I am pinched into awareness. I realise that she is the scared one. Her voice tells me. I have such a desire to reach out and hold her, to say, 'there, there' to her, to make the bad people go away and not hurt her any more.
And she says in a stronger voice, maybe a violent voice, 'Bernard Malone's daughter.'
'I know who you are,' I say. I don't know how I sound to her, or to Margaret. Do I sound tender, or hard? How can Margaret not see?
I look to the chin raised against me, the clench of the jaw. She is everything at once to me, middle-aged woman as she undoubtedly is, rebellious youngster, frightened child on her first day at school. And my baby. My precious, precious.
'I am sorry not to have contacted you. I only knew it was Rome. I didn't have an address, of course.' She sounds like me. So bitter.
'Of course,' I reply. Is there something else I should have said? Yes, I think so, for she looks at me with acid in her gaze. I am burned by her. It is a long time since I have been so unsure of my footing. I am quite sedate usually, smooth as a swan.
Fairly fluent, too, on a good day. I haven't the faintest idea what to say next. She is avoiding my eyes. I have the chance to indulge myself and I take it. I stare hard at her, the eyebrows which lack distinction in the same way as mine but which, for some reason, I find in her overwhelmingly and vulnerably lovely. She oozes sweat on the mound of her chin, tiny bubbles, and beside her nose are two moist wings. She is nervous.
And now she rubs her arm. Thank God I didn't do it first. She is protecting herself, one arm across her chest. She is brave. Braver than I am. I am proud of her.
I smell a waft of Margaret's need to swim in our private sea, not just ours of course but anyone's, anyone's apart from her husband's and more cogently her own. She is growing agitated with the delay. I wish I had the balls to tell her what to do with herself.
Francesca also wakens to Margaret, and I watch her slide a disdainful glance towards the poor creature. I touch Francesca's elbow. The slightest and most embarrassed, most aware of touches, and only with the tip of my finger. I don't want to offend. But it is sufficient to signal her, and we both turn away from our unwelcome partner. I take one step, and so does she. We each walk another five or six paces. Margaret is cast adrift.
'I'll give you my address,' I say. 'Where are you staying?'
'Off the Via Veneto,' she says. I note she withholds the name of the hotel.
'My card is in my bag.' I restrain an urge to point to it, lying somewhere under the tablecloth.
'You must give it to me before I leave,' she says. Now we have both spoken to each other as business contacts might, and I am appalled at my gaucheness, just as she, from the looks, is delighted with hers. One shot across the bow.
I feel so awkward, so off-balance that I want to walk away from her. That is my nature, I suppose.
She beats me to it. 'I have to leave early, actually. I've got a busy evening,' she says and she doesn't even bother to look at me before she simply wanders off.
I am left standing. I can hardly complain.
She has retained her figure. Good for her. She sits down at Dora and Vincenzo's table on the higher terrace. I think she knows I am staring at her. Her back is ramrod straight on the chair. She quickly lifts a glass of wine. She probably needs it.
It is only now that my legs shake. I don't know how to make it back to my table. I even hope for Margaret to reappear, but it is not she who rescues me. My knight is the man originally and partly from the bush, who wanders up to me holding a plate of rare steak. The lump of meat is enormous. He has an appetite, this boy.
'You lost?' he says.
'Who are you?' I say. 'Where am I?'
'Just follow me, you poor old thing.' As we walk, his arm bumps my shoulder, deliberately I presume, and I take hold of it. I like him. He doesn't need to be explained to. How I've longed for that, for these ten less than funny years.
He doesn't pry, either. He doesn't ask, 'Did you meet the woman from home? Who is she? Why do you look a hundred and ten suddenly?'
I sit down silently. I'd like to say something smart, to put everyone off the scent. I can't think of anything smart.
It occurs to me that the bush man could deliver my card to Francesca's table. I sense it is a principle of his not to betray curiosity even if he feels it. He is sawing into the piece of cow, which is so tender it shivers almost like jelly on his fork. He is transported to heaven at first bite. Or so he chooses to convey with his closed eyes and the slow nodding of his head.
'Don't eat it if you don't like it,' I say.
He swallows and says, 'Too well brought up. What about all those millions of Chinese who'll starve if I leave anything on my plate?'
'That's true,' I concur.
We should indeed be in heaven. The sun graces us; we are bathed in its light. The grass is emerald-deep from it, sea-cave green with it. We are enclosed by a warm wall of stone strung with old ivy. Outside is one of the most glamorous of cities, not just in the time of our brief visiting, but the two thousand years the world has looked to her, hated her, loved her, romanticised her. Are we not the most favoured of creatures, we fifty or so blow-ins, with our crisp white tablecloths and our hired wine glasses, reclining under God's sun, or the gods' sun depending on which millennium we have woken in to?
I was in heaven once. I am what you might call a true believer as a result. My sojourn there failed to induce a conversion of heart, more's the pity. I am now everything I wanted not to be, and too tired to do anything about it.
Here comes Margaret. And here comes Frank, hangdog, trailing behind her. How can they bear it? She sits heavily, and pretends to ignore him. He attempts to kneel, the supplicant, at her feet. Unfortunately he falters, hits his head on the sharp edge of the table and must grab at her legs to steady himself. She empties a wine bottle into a glass, and when her husband has got his head out of her lap, smoothes her skirt distastefully. He turns to Buddha-like detachment, sprawls out backwards on the grass and enjoys a few moments of bliss. He thunders up a burp.
My bush friend, undeterred, deposits yet another forkful of meat into his mouth. He is the three wise monkeys rolled into one, seeing nothing, hearing nothing and, I finally realise, actually saying nothing either.
All the same, I can't leave the delivery job to him. Clearly I'm a coward. But I'm also too proud to be a fool. Though what would be more foolish than that which I am about to do? Give my business card to my own daughter and say, 'Let's do lunch'? I bend over to rummage in my bag. It has a mind of its own and won't cough up the goods as bags are required to do. I presume I am so embarrassed, so horrified at the sheer absurdity of the predicament that my hand refuses to locate the cursed batch of cards. I am at last unzipping the side compartment, where of course I knew they had to be all along, when I hear her voice. I come up so quickly that I, too, hit my head on the edge of the table. At least I have a couple of cards clutched in my sweaty grip. She is standing right over me, back to the sun, so I see her in eclipse. She has just said, 'I'm going now.'
'Oh, dear,' I comment. I touch my banged forehead. Maybe I am seeing stars, I don't know; I was feeling disembodied before I smacked myself.
My bush man appears to have stood. I heard the scrape of his chair, and I feel his bulk looming over me. A bit of old-fashioned courtesy. I have no intention of introducing the two of them, needless to say. Apart from anything else, I don't know his name, and as for Francesca, what does she call herself? Is she somebody's missus? Or does she use the name that was mine for a while?
'What about your number?' I find myself bleating. 'May I ring you?' I stick one of my cards into her hand, inserting it between her clenched fingers. She surrenders finally and her thumb slides over it.
She looks at her watch. She is not going to answer.
'Will you ring? Francesca?' I am pleading now, or as near to it as I can come. Perhaps I sound commanding, rather. What can I do with myself?
'If you wish,' she says. Her glance rests on me for less than a second. I am no great sight for sore eyes, not her sore eyes anyway.
'I hope you do. I really hope.' That's done it. If she has matured into a vicious cow, she can walk off triumphant, and never bother with me again.
'If I have time,' she says. She deigns to confront me with a full gaze. 'I am very busy. I have quite a lot to do.'
'Of course,' I say, mild as a lamb.
She glances over my head. I note that her eyes falter, and she takes a second look at him. She gives me a curt nod; better than a kick in the teeth. And she goes.
I am left, sitting side-on at the trestle table, with emptiness rushing into me and so quickly and so thoroughly drenching my dry sands that I panic. Not again. Not again.