Anne Harris

Art

Anne Harris

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Her stomach tightens at the first sight of him crossing the concourse at Termini Station. He kisses her but not, she notes, until he has made a brief check to see if there is anyone around who would know him.

        They are bundled into thick winter coats, scarves and gloves and the encounter is awkward, fumbly, contrasting with the relaxed greetings of the Italians surrounding them. Straightening up, he makes another furtive sweep of the station.

        It has all been managed with such precision. He has been in Milan for a trade fair, buying some obscure widgets or grommets that are essential for holding together aircraft while she flew directly into Rome to ensure that they aren’t seen together by anyone who might recognise them. Yet he’s still on edge.

        In the taxi to the hotel, he sits in front, stiffly upright, while she occupies the back seat. She suppresses a smile. Nobody ever sits in the front seat of a Roman taxi if they can help it, and if they can’t help it, they keep their eyes tightly shut. It’s difficult not to be amused by his discomfort as they appear to head straight for the upright pillar of an archway, only to swerve round it at the last instant.

        At the hotel, their coats shed, he takes her into his arms, murmuring that he wants to say a proper hello but she pulls away, reminding him that they have an entire weekend. They have never, until now, had more than a few stolen hours at her flat. He has never even stayed the night. 

        She wants to show him this city that she loves, to stroll quietly with him, absorb it together. She guesses, however, that seeing the city is the last thing on his mind.

        She asks him about Milan, how he liked it, did he see the Duomo, La Scala, but his knowledge extends only to his hotel, part of a modern chain, and the exhibition hall. He is less than enthusiastic about this hotel which she has chosen for its location, its fabric-padded walls, its air of faded grandeur. He prefers, he says, efficient plumbing and clean lines.

        She finally persuades him out into the crisp February air. Above them, the sky seems as hard and shiny as blue china. She wants to show him the Colosseum, to give him the surprise of it as they emerge up the steps from the Metro. She wants to take a photo of him in front of it, but he refuses. He is fanatical about evidence.

        The whole area is busy and students and tourists mill around laughing, eating and taking photographs while the endless traffic careers past, seemingly oblivious.

        ‘I wonder,’ she says, ‘if they ever, you know, get brought up short. If they ever look out of the window of the car or the bus and think about all the history they’re passing or if it’s just the same to them as the City Hall or the university is to us.’

        He doesn’t reply. He looks uncomfortable in his business suit, his only concession to being on holiday having been to remove his tie. He couldn’t, he has explained, pack any casual clothes for fear of alerting his wife to the fact that this trip was not to be entirely dedicated to work. So he moves amongst the track suits and fleeces, looking stiff and overheated, in spite of the visibility of their breath on the air.

        He picked up her guide book at the hotel and asked if she’d decided on any kind of itinerary for the weekend, raising one eyebrow when she’d said no, that wasn’t her thing. She prefers to head off in any direction then just wander around as the mood takes her. She is beginning to see that he isn’t the just wandering around type.

        Behind them, a group of giggling Japanese schoolgirls in jeans and surgical facemasks crowd round a man dressed as a Roman soldier in plastic breastplate and red polyester cloak. It’s odd, she thinks, how even with the anonymity of their masks they have the need to record that they were here, at this moment, in this location as though without the photograph it may not have happened at all. It’s why she, too, wants to have photographs as mementos. It’s why he doesn’t.

        He is not as amused as she is when she takes a surreptitious photograph of one of the ‘soldiers’ who is taking a break to smoke a cigarette and call someone on his mobile phone. She delights in the incongruity.

        All around them, people seem to be entwined, particularly the young: the girls’ slight curves fitting neatly into the concavities of the lithe, male bodies and she thinks, if Paris is a city for lovers then Rome is a city of lovers. When she says this, it sounds trite and is greeted with a shrug, but lovers are everywhere, all ages, all shapes and sizes, all of them totally indifferent to what is happening around them.

        That night, they eat in a small restaurant in the Trastevere, having walked through the narrow streets hand-in-hand. He is, she thinks, slowly relaxing or perhaps it’s the whisky from the mini bar making him a little more reckless.

        They eat on the restaurant’s terrace, protected from the cold by clear plastic sheeting and a patio heater.

        She looks around her. ‘Doesn’t it remind you of the paintboxes you used to get as a child?’

        He frowns. ‘What does?’

        ‘The colours of the houses here. Don’t you remember? Paintboxes always had names beside the colours. Ochre, burnt sienna, rose madder.’ She stops. She can see that he doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

        She wants him to say that of course it matters, everything she says matters, to reach for her hand and get involved in the discussion of paintboxes and houses and just drift into talking about anything and everything and nothing. Instead, he’s concentrating on the menu as though he’s about to be tested on it. He’s not keen on Italian food, he says. Too many tomatoes in it, too much garlic. He thinks he’d like to order steak and chips except there’s no steak on the menu. He gives a martyred sigh. He’ll just have a plain pizza.

        She bites her lip. Of course he’s not keen on Italian food. Of course there are too many tomatoes in it. Of course he’ll have pizza.

        She’s never noticed this quality in him before, this ability to for industrial-scale sulking. His visits to her flat have been brief and, if she’s honest, have involved little actual conversation.

        There have been times when she’s tried to pull away. But he has pursued her again, cajoled and flattered, just as he did in the beginning and she always ends up relenting because otherwise it’s an empty flat and waking up to empty wine bottles.

        She tries not to feel guilty; tells herself that no-one can break up a truly happy marriage and that, anyway, she’s a free agent. She’s never been one for the concept of the sisterhood, anyhow.

        In truth, she feels powerless. He calls the shots, says when they can meet and she has to wait for the call, all the while facing the possibility that he won’t turn up. She’s learned the hard way that a married man in an affair holds all the cards simply because he always has somewhere else to go.

        He orders a large carafe of the house red and proceeds to drink about three glasses of it to each one she drinks. She can feel the tension build and it’s not helped by the appearance of a small man with a violin moving between the tables playing love songs to the diners. He takes another gulp of wine and when he talks now his voice is louder, bordering on the aggressive. She shakes her head at the violinist who winks at her and turns to an American couple a few tables away. The American pulls out a bundle of euros and studies them before passing one to the violinist.

        Suddenly, she is seized by a clutching sense of claustrophobia and has to get away. She’d like to run down these side streets, lose herself in their paintbox colours. Instead, she goes through the main restaurant, feeling almost deafened by the sound of cutlery on plates, voices, music and the hiss of the espresso machine. The toilets are downstairs and she negotiates the terracotta steps carefully. The wine seems to be affecting her feet disproportionately to the amount she has drunk. The lighting in the ladies toilets has a pinkish tone and she thinks she looks like a bloated drunk in the mirror. You’d have to paint her cheeks from the crimson square.  


Walking to the Vatican Museums the next morning, they see two estate cars pulled up back to back with the hatches open. Inside one, a man sits cross-legged, using a glue gun to attach labels to fake designer handbags before passing them to his companion who is stacking them neatly into the other car.

        There is a queue for entry but she is determined that they should go. He is in the grip of a hangover and joined her only as she was finishing breakfast to consume several strong cups of coffee.

        Now he’s jittery. She knows he would have preferred to spend the morning in bed instead of moving slowly through the Raphael rooms. His patent boredom is childish and he barely glances at the paintings while she reads the cards beside each one.

        She is not trying to annoy him. She wants to create memories out of this. She wants to be able to sit alone in her flat and remember how they did this, how she loved him while they did it. How he loved her.

        How he loved her.

        He had loved her last night. More or less. At first, it had been fierce, almost angry, but, gradually, the mood softened as the thick warmth of the hotel room wrapped round them. He barely even seemed to register that the bed was, in fact, two pushed together. Afterwards, as she listened to the sounds of the Roman night – incessant traffic, car horns and the rattle of wintry rain against the windows – he lolled across her, a parody of the St Peter’s pieta she had shown him earlier.

She pushed him off and he grunted. Alone, she curled up at the edge of her bed, the pillow scrunched up under her head, and stared straight ahead. The blackness was relieved only by trickles of light from car headlights sliding up the wall and across the ceiling through a tiny gap in the curtains.

 

They squeeze onto the bench running round the side of the Sistine Chapel. He sits beside her, scanning Michaelangelo’s ceiling as though checking the weather.

        If he’s making any memories at all, they’ll be focused on the hotel bedroom. She can see that now.

        ‘It’s smaller than I thought,’ he says and she nods. ‘You see it everywhere,’ he indicates the tableau of Adam reaching out to the bearded figure of God. ‘I thought it would be enormous. But it’s actually quite small.’ He sounds disappointed.

        She gathers up her belongings and they leave. He wants to go to a café for another double espresso.


Late on Sunday morning, she pulls out of his arms and goes into the bathroom. He will be taking an afternoon train back to Milan so that he can maintain his cover story but it’s almost time for her to leave for Leonardo Da Vinci airport and she needs to get a shower.

        She closes the bathroom door and sets the shower running. The bathroom slowly fills with steam as she lines up towels and shampoo. She realises that she’s left her sponge bag in the bedroom and opens the door to fetch it from where it sits near the door.

        She stops.

        He is sprawled on the bed, luxuriously naked in the overheated hotel room. She is about to enter when she realises that he is talking on his mobile phone. It is, she presumes, his wife on the other end and he’s telling her how much he’s been missing her, how bored he’s been and how he can’t wait to get home.

        She feels suddenly angry. His tone of voice is the one he uses for her, so many of his words she has believed were hers too.

        She grabs the bag and carefully closes the door. She has no intention of boosting his ego by being the mistress who listens jealously to conversations with the wife.

        She spends as long as she can in the bathroom, showering, styling her hair putting on make up and dressing. When she’s ready, she comes back out.

        Still naked, he’s reading some trade journal with a close up of an aeroplane’s wing on the front. He looks up when she comes back in.

        ‘Ready to go?’ he says as she adds the final items to her suitcase. She nods as she zips it up. ‘We’ll have to do this again,’ he says.

        She spins round to look at him but he seems serious. He pulls her down on the bed beside him.

        ‘One last time for luck,’ he says, undoing the belt of her jeans.

        She lies motionless. There’s a tiny hairline crack in one corner of the ceiling, slicing the corner into a perfect equilateral triangle. It’s odd, she thinks, remembering schoolgirl geometry while other things slip away so easily.

        Afterwards, he kisses the top of her head and goes into the bathroom.

        She stands up and straightens her clothes then goes to the mirror to brush her hair. Today her face could be painted from the ivory block in the paintbox.

        As the water begins to run in the bathroom, she snaps up the handle of her suitcase and quietly leaves the room.


First broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Story, read by Jemma Redgrave


Anne Harris


Anne Harris writes fiction, drama and poetry and lives in Belfast. Her plays have been produced by RTE and BBC, and her short stories published in various publications, winning a number of competitions within Ireland. She is one of Lagan Online’s 12NOW writers to watch out for in 2017.