Short stories

Returning to Rome

As we leave Siracusa, the train runs by a massive refinery, deserted, a labyrinth of pipes and smokestacks. Then a town, Augusta, surrounded by lowlands and rusting boats in the sea. The train tracks reach the coast and the view gets wealthier. A spit leads from a little beach to a tiny island, with a winding path up to a scenic stone house. Only two weeks ago, on our way down, there were people everywhere, covering the beach, the spit, the causeway. Today it’s cooler, and the few people on the beach huddle into jackets. The summer is over.

There is a woman sitting directly opposite me. She has grey curly hair that springs out from her head, a long face with an aristocratic nose. I wonder if she is a contessa. We had seen a contessa in Rome at a restaurant we were eating in. The owner had taken a phone call then raised his eyebrows. He had put the phone down then hissed out to his staff, ‘The contessa is coming’. My limited Italian grasped the word ‘contessa’ and the meaning from the sudden transformation of the sleepy restaurant into a hive of anxious table adjusting and cutlery shining. The room stilled as the owner opened the door to a woman whose demeanour, clothes and jewellery screamed ‘contessa’. Her entourage consisted of a grey-haired man in an impeccable suit, and three teenagers in expensively dressed-down jeans and t-shirts. The teenagers spoke French but she insisted that they try to speak Italian. I had to force myself to take my eyes off her.

The woman opposite me has much less jewellery than the contessa, but it’s still a lot for a train journey. There are rings on most of her fingers and three or four gold necklaces hanging against her neck, the finer ones wound around the chunkier ones. When she catches my eye and smiles I realise I’ve been staring, trying to disentangle the gold chains. She had smiled at me earlier when the man with the coffee cart came by and Philip asked if I wanted anything. I must have grimaced in reply. The train had left soon after dawn and I had only just managed to swallow a little tub of sweet yogurt before we were out of the hotel, standing on the street among the sweeping and the water rushing in the gutters, then getting into a taxi. The coffee cart man looked at us, bored, and Philip said, ‘It’s Italy! It’s probably ok!’ I said, ‘Oh no, it’s not that – I just don’t want one.’ And he said, ‘You won’t get anything else today.’ I had just shaken my head then, annoyed by his insistence. The woman had looked up from her book and given me a strange smile, along with an assessing look, conspiratorial even, that took in everything from the bags under my eyes to the shiny new wedding band on my finger. I had smiled back and quickly looked away. But this time she catches me staring at her, at those jangling, twining chains. I have to smile back and hold it, and search my sleepy brain for any word of greeting in Italian. Her eyes become searching, and again she gives me that look. It’s as if she’s looking right into me, into my bra suddenly two sizes too small, my queasy stomach, my instant irritation with everything. I have nowhere to hide from that look of hers and am almost unsurprised when she pats her tummy, and breaks into a wider smile. She nods and pats her tummy again. Philip looks up from his book. He must have felt me squirming. I can’t outright deny her what she knows, but I’m not going to admit it either. I shrug, and keep smiling, then go out to the corridor, making my way past Philip, frowning, and the three sets of Italian knees. I go down to the toilet, not yet evil. I need a place to think. Again.

I stay in the little room with the only slightly sticky floor until someone knocks and I have to head back to the carriage. I walk slowly down the corridor with its view of the other side of the tracks – rocks and scrubby hills.

Philip has his eyes shut, his head leaning against the back of his seat. The gold-chain woman glances at me, then reaches out a protective hand as the train lurches and I fall backwards. ‘Attenzione!’ she says kindly. Philip opens one eyelid then shuts it again. I rearrange myself to stare out the window.

Outside the train, two people pull a beachtowel tight around their shoulders while a toddler plays on the black sand. The toddler points to the train. A man sits on a black rock high above the sea, fishing.

At Messina our train drives onto the ferry. We know what to do this time, and go up to the deck. Today there is no need to peer into corridors and behind doors. We go straight to the bar to buy our arancini, and take them outside to watch Sicily disappear into the haze. Just two weeks ago we had entered the port, pointing and exclaiming, entranced by its sheltering arm, its tall plinth and golden statue.

The young man from our carriage huddles nearby over a power point, trying to charge his phone. Philip looks out beyond the ferry’s railings and says quietly, ‘What was all that about? The tummy patting?’ He looks sideways at me, shyly. His eyes open wide and vulnerable. His lips soften, and a grin he can’t control starts to fill his face. A grain of rice on his lip wobbles. I pity him and his easy, gooey hope full of sunshine and roses and cherubs.

‘I’m a bit late. It’s probably nothing. I don’t know why she did that’, I say in a rush. ‘I don’t know how she could tell’, I add reluctantly.

‘That’s very exciting’, Philip says, taking my hand. ‘That’s happened quickly.’

‘Too quickly’, I say. He’s still smiling, not picking up on my very unexcited face. ‘I’m not ready’, I have to say, staring at him until he understands.

The announcement is made to return to the train and we go back down the steep metal stairs into the hold, gripping the salty, thick-painted handrail. A passenger talks to a workman as we wait for the train to move. For the workman it’s all commonplace, the train broken into two pieces, the section from Palermo joined onto our carriages, the shunting.

A sixth person has joined our compartment, so it’s full now. There’s nowhere for his bag. I shrug like an Italian. It’s so full that when one person changes how they’ve crossed their legs we all have to reposition ourselves.

Outside, grape vine terraces rise up the steep hillsides. A large pink panther has been given new life, reassigned from being a toy to a scarecrow. Flashing past the window there’s an orange house, then a lemon yellow house with a lime green wall. They both have washing lines strung across their yards, clothes flapping so hard I can almost hear them. We run through a small town full of shabby apartment blocks bristling with TV antennas and satellite dishes. The clothes are more sombre here, still and silent on lines strung along the edges of balconies. I think about how very not ready I am. I’m not ready to give up on the recent promise of promotion at work, or the steady hours of concentration. The more I stare at the washing lines and the fences and the TV antennas, the more I see that a baby would mean me, not him, constantly tending the washing line and the kitchen sink, zombie-like for lack of sleep and always covered with clinging hands.

The olive nets are stretched out on the ground under the trees. Two weeks ago they were still bundled up. Even the rivers look organised, reshaped, in this intense countryside. Near Scapri the train runs in a narrow band between sharp mountains and the sea. There’s a completely abandoned hill town, its broken walls forming curlicues against the sky. Every mountain looks like the one we looked at from our agriturismo near Bosco, which now feels like an eternity ago, a different world where we sat on the balcony, loved up and drowsy, watching their little dog Palmyra stand on guard. He would sit lionlike on the edge of the patio, looking out into the olive trees, down the hill. On our last night he sat as usual, listening to the bells of the goats and the other dogs barking around the hills. Then he let out a gruff bark himself, and sat upright, his skinny front legs straight and tall, his skew ears at their odd angles, his curled tail flat on the ground. He surveyed his domain more keenly, then suddenly he was off, running down the hill barking sharp warning yips. When it was nearly dark I saw a small tan and black dog running through the olives. I expected to hear Palmyra’s indignant barks at this intruder but instead he appeared running happily behind, his white coat shining in the gloom.

Philip nudges me and stands up, pointing with his eyes towards the corridor. The gold-chain woman keeps her eyes on her book and moves her knees to one side so I can stand, and we both shuffle out.

Philip walks down the corridor a little then leans on the steel bar in front of the windows and hisses, ‘You said that very quickly. That it wasn’t going to happen.’

‘This time! Not this time!’ I reply.

His face is like a stranger’s. I barely recognise him. His cheeks are hollow, his eyes wet and gaunt. Even his forehead is higher, as if his hair has receded in this one afternoon. I look for the man I loved. What did he look like? I feel like reaching into my pocket to check the photo on my phone.

‘You weren’t going to tell me, were you? You were going to deal with it … you were going to just make that decision …’

‘No!’ I lie indignantly. ‘No!’

Our voices are fogging up the window. A little girl out in the corridor with her father peers up at us with frank interest.

Philip turns away impatiently and walks back to our carriage. He folds his arms and slaps at one unlucky elbow with his hand as he waits for me to go in first. I wriggle in between the knees, saying ‘Scusi! Scusi!’ and Philip tunnels through behind, head down.

Outside there is a river, wide, rocky, shallow but fast. No-one else looks out the window. Across from me the gold-chain woman reads an analysis of the Divine Comedy. Next to her a man reads Stephen King and next to him the young man who has whinged ever since he got on stabs at some game on his phone, twisting and exhaling loudly. He struck up a conversation with the woman next to Philip when he got on. When she came back from her first break he leaned over and they whispered together about it before he too went out, bringing back to the carriage the dirty smell of cigarette.

The train stops for 15 endless minutes in Naples, Philip’s hand avoiding mine. The Stephen King man stands up, forcing our knees together for one burning moment. The young whinging man is replaced by a man with a laptop who sits and bashes the keys as he waits for his internet connection. I read the same page of my book over and over until the train jolts forward and the platform recedes.

Outside, a pink house shines through the early dusk. Another hour to go until we get to Rome.

We had started in Rome, full of romance and relief, the wedding over, the honeymoon begun. Out of the pale blue late Sunday afternoon sky came the sound of musicians starting up in Campo dei Fiori with a medley of old hits for accordion and violin. The rich smell of truffle oil drifted out into the streets. Then the bells started pealing, random clanging filling the air. We stayed where we were in Piazza Farnese, leaning into each other with our hands clasped, fingers pulsing, idly watching a group of children playing soccer. Half a dozen boys and a wild little girl, half the size of the boys and twice as determined. When the boys wandered off she stayed in the square, practising her kicks, bouncing the ball off the front, the back, the side of her shoe, off her knees in the high-stepping fashion of a team in training. A woman called out and she called back. ‘Maa-ma!’, in that particular Italian child way, the inflexion rising on the Maa. Not yet! It’s not time to go in yet! She stood pleading, then ran off, bouncing the ball and kicking.

Fields and grapevines gave way to darkness, then streetlights and lines of cars in tangled streets as we arrived in Rome. I didn’t see the gold-chain woman leave the carriage. She must have gone when we were struggling with our bags. Her part in our lives was over. We got off the train, left the terminus and stood in the queue for a taxi. We were driven to our hotel and we found our room, stood on a tiny balcony looking out at the alleyway beneath us and a ragged tip of the Colosseum beyond and we breathed again, and pretended that nothing had happened. Then that pretence grew in our hearts and displaced nights of love on balconies. It brought us restlessness, and jagged barbs that tore holes in the fabric of our newly-promised life.

 

 

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