Rome, Tuesday, 1 June 2004
On the last morning of their marriage, Helen and Federico leave the flat together, shortly before nine. Federico has told his driver to wait on the far side of the square because the widowed sisters on the first floor complain about car fumes dirtying their scraps of washing; flannel vests, grey woollen tights, despite the early June heat. How sad, thinks Helen, glancing up at their balcony as a drop of water catches her arm. A whole life lived, a line of dripping cloth. So she and Federico have these final moments together, down the dark stairs and across the square, barely time to exchange a dozen words and say goodbye before their separate days begin.
By the time they reach the car they have both fallen silent. In any case, everything was organised before they left the flat. Helen will shop for that evening because Giacomo, their oldest friend, is coming to dinner with his new wife. As usual, Federico has planned the meal and written the list of items Helen has to buy. He’s decided to keep it simple: cold cuts, veal liver and artichoke, summer fruits and cheese. On the way to the ministry, he will tell the driver to stop off in one of the narrow streets nearby, where he will pick up some Stilton from a shop that imports it directly. This evening, Helen will set the table and fill up glasses while Federico cooks and serves. He always cooks; it relaxes him after work. Helen will sit at the breakfast bar with a glass of wine and listen to his stories of the day’s events at the ministry, of people who form an intimate part of Federico’s world and a less intimate part of hers.
Federico takes his seat beside the driver with his briefcase lodged between his feet, the briefcase he has had since university and refuses to replace, now cracked and stained and stitched together with sailmakers’ twine – a task he performs himself each summer to the amusement of Helen, who has never mended anything in her life. In the back sits one of the bodyguards assigned to Federico: two drivers, two bodyguards, what Helen calls his government issue, shifted around on a bi-weekly rota. Today’s driver is Massimo, her favourite; the other one never seems to notice her. Federico is supposed to stay in the back, with the bodyguard, but prefers to sit beside the driver, whose risk is greater. He enjoys taking risks.
Massimo raises his hand in a crisp salute to Helen.
“When can we come and see your mother again?” she says.
Massimo spreads his hands as if to say she only has to name the day. “She’s been bottling the new tomatoes. She hasn’t forgotten you, don’t worry. She’s put some aside.”
Federico has already picked up the pile of this morning’s newspapers from his seat and is rifling through them. Helen hesitates beside the open window, then turns away as Federico grimaces at something he’s read, his face disappearing behind a sheet of tinted glass. She steps back to watch the blue car cross the square, drive down towards Via Giulia and the flow of traffic on the Lungotevere, its passenger invisible behind the dark rear window.
She stands for a moment, distracted by the fluttering of rainbow peace flags from the windows opposite, then walks over to their local bar and orders a cappuccino, which she drinks while glancing at the headlines of the
on one of the tables. The banner is devoted to videos of the hostages in Iraq, but she ignores that and glances down to the front-page account of a minor government crisis, comparing it with what Federico told her the night before. She has that familiar feeling of being at the centre of events and yet excluded. She is tempted to tell the barman the truth of the matter, but she resists. The barman, the rest of the world, will always prefer to believe what they read. Even when events prove her right, her version will have been forgotten.
The barman’s mother, wrapped in an apron, her sparse grey hair pushed up into a nylon cap, is working in the kitchen behind the bar, preparing sandwiches for later that day, cheese and ham, artichoke hearts and mozzarella, tuna and tomato. She glances through to the bar, waving the large broad knife she uses to spread mayonnaise, and shouts across to Helen that the world is going to the dogs, with a tone of immense cheerfulness, even hilarity. Helen nods and raises her empty cup in agreement.
She has three hours before work. Her shift at the news agency begins at noon, the light shift after the early morning roundup. She leaves the bar and walks across Piazza Farnese and through the market in Campo de’ Fiori, remembering the way it was when she’d first come to Rome, the rickety wooden stalls, the sacks of dried beans like dusty counters, all of it smoothed away now, tamped down and neatened up. She checks to see what’s on at the cinema; a Japanese film she’s never heard of that won something in Venice last September. She wanders down Via dei Giubbonari, pausing to glance through the table of books outside the second-hand bookshop in the small square halfway down, where the man she thinks of as the Sad Man is sorting through old magazines by the door. He smiles at her, she smiles back; they have friends in common, well, Martin, really, but she can never remember his first name, except that it’s English. Anthony? Andrew? He has red hair going grey, worn too long and held back with a rubber band, and one of those waistcoats with pockets all over it that fishermen wear. She feels she should talk to him, but doesn’t want to talk to anyone this morning, she’s too distracted by thoughts of the dinner this evening, and of Giacomo. She’s never met his new wife, Yvonne, and doesn’t particularly want to. She nods her goodbye as she walks away.
She decides to spend an hour in the American Library. She’s supposed to be writing an essay on Toni Morrison, for a second degree in modern American identities she no longer sees the purpose of. It was an idea of her husband’s, who worries she’s stagnating, who sets her small but demanding intellectual tasks to ensure her mind remains alert. But the minute she’s inside the library, she ignores the bookshelves and picks up this morning’s copy of the
International Herald Tribune
The first two pages are devoted to the war in Iraq, but Helen is looking for stories about Italy – looking for mention of Federico. It’s odd to see news of the government crisis repeated, downscaled to a squabble among minor parties, a storm in a teacup; two brief paragraphs on page three and a hint of irony entirely lacking from the domestic account. She thumbs through the rest of the newspaper, then glances round the reading room to see who else is there. A group of students, teenage boys and girls in low-slung jeans and T-shirts, two soberly dressed women, perhaps lay nuns, in the political history section. No one she knows. She’s restless, waiting for something to happen. She wonders if Giacomo is already in Rome, and what he’s doing if he is. She finds herself trying to imagine what Yvonne will be like, and how she’ll behave with her, how polite she’ll need to be. She’s in no mood to study.
Leaving the library behind her, she stands in the empty courtyard, already bleached by sunlight at 9:20am. High above her head, an army helicopter crosses the bright blue square of sky, like a furious insect. The noise reminds her of her mobile. She fumbles for it in her bag, then stares at the blank display to see if she’s been called, but it’s still turned off from last night, her final act before she slept, with Federico reading in bed beside her from a pile of official-looking papers. Leaning against the warm stone of a column, she closes her eyes against the light. And all at once she has a vision of Federico, his tall, stooped figure, his creased blue suit, the fine hair falling across his face, as though he is standing in front of her and shaking his head, his smile both irritated and perplexed, yet still a smile addressed to her and to no one else. She almost cries out and reaches her hand towards him, her body urging her forward towards Federico, to hold him.
And just as abruptly he is gone. She looks at her watch to see what time it is. 9:27am. She thinks, I’ll ask him where he was over dinner. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s better not to mention it. Federico has become so superstitious these past few months, with a thousand odd ideas about fate and coincidence: the notion that it’s all bound together and has sense, which reminds her of Jung and synchronicity and that business about a butterfly’s wing, and strikes her as lovely and meaningless at the same time. She has always been puzzled by the need for saints and miracles, the need for connectedness; not cynically, almost with envy, as something beyond her grasp.
She holds her mobile in her hand and then, with a shiver at what she will call, for want of any better term, her vision of Federico, she turns it on. She has three missed calls and a text message, all from the same number, a foreign number she recognises from the code as French. At last, she says to herself. She opens the message.
Bored, alone in Rome. Free for half an hour? Il tuo G.
Giacomo hurries her into the hotel room, then takes both her hands in his and steps back to take a better look. She laughs and tries to pull away a little, unexpectedly self-conscious.
“Helen, Helen, my dear sweet Helen,” he says. “How good it is to see you.”
He is speaking English with her, as he always did, however much she complained; but he’s acquired a French accent these past few years. He’s also put on weight since she last saw him, a matter of months ago, although it seems far longer. He hugs her to him, his belly warm and firm against hers. And immediately, as though the light in the room has changed, she wishes she hadn’t come. It’s stupid to see him here in Rome like this, the minute he’s arrived and without Federico, in a hotel room booked for him by Federico’s staff. It’s not just indiscreet; her being here will spoil what’s supposed to be the surprise of their meeting up, the four of them, for the first time this evening. For a moment, she wonders whether it might be wiser not to tell Federico where she’s been; but then she will feel like a child who has opened her birthday present the night before and has to fake her pleasure. She can be honest and spoil it for Federico, or lie and spoil it for herself. Either way, it’s a risk, and the bigger risk is that he’ll find out anyway. It might be Giacomo’s fault – she’s here with Giacomo’s connivance, after all – but she knows she has made a mistake. She squirms until he lets her go, only to place his hands on her shoulders and stare down into her face with an affectionate, challenging grin until she’s forced to turn her head away, laughing again, with a trace of anxiety she tries to hide. And then the mood passes as quickly as it came – how complicated life can be if you allow it, she thinks – and there is nowhere in the world she would rather be than here with Giacomo.
“So good.” He pulls her across the room to a pair of armchairs near the window. “I’ll phone for coffee?”
“Not unless you want some. I’ve had enough for one day.” She glances round the room. There’s an open suitcase on the bed, a magazine beside it.
. “You’re on your own. Your wife?” She listens to her voice for sarcasm, or hurt, but all she can find is casual interest.
He waves a hand in the air. “Yvonne arrives sometime this afternoon. Late. She had business to attend to in Paris.”
“She’s in fashion?”
“Oh yes, always.” He grins again. He’s misunderstood deliberately, she knows that. As if they have never been apart, and there is no new wife between them, she relaxes.
“And you didn’t wait for her?”
He shrugs. “You know me. Always restless. She had some lunch to go to.” He stares through the window, down towards Via Veneto and its silent flow of traffic. “Whose idea was it to put us here? In this lap of bourgeois luxury?”
“One of Federico’s people. I told them you wouldn’t like it.”
“On the contrary, I’m delighted. These days, I only ever stay in places like this. I have a reputation to maintain.”
She isn’t sure if this is a joke. He pulls out a packet of cigarettes.
. In Turin, he’d smoked
. Giacomo has always believed in blending in.
“You haven’t stopped?”
“I haven’t been quite forced to. Not yet, anyway. Which is one of many reasons for continuing to prefer Paris to other less civilised capitals.” He lights up, then offers her the packet. “I assume you’re still resisting.”
He nods again, draws deeply on the cigarette. When his eyes close for a moment, she sneaks an appraising look. He’s older, stockier, his good looks faded by now, but his greying hair has been cut by someone who knew what he or she was doing, and she’s never seen him dressed so well, so stylishly, nor with such highly-polished, almost foppish shoes. Federico would refuse to wear a suit this perfectly tailored, on political grounds. She can already see his face when he looks at his old friend dressed like this, perplexed and disdainful; she wonders, when he does, which side she’ll be on. She’s glad though that she’s wearing something decent.