By IAN SEED.
ANOTHER DAY OVER, he walked down the steps into the metro at Piazza Duomo. It had been raining and there was a smell of damp clothes, mingled with a more distant odour of sweat. People hurrying home. Not that Martin was in any rush. There would be no one waiting when he got back to his rented flat.
He crossed the small space at the bottom of the steps to the newspaper kiosk in front of the ticket barrier. La Stampa, his favourite Italian newspaper, was displayed alongside a copy of yesterday’s Times. There were also the usual Italian hard-core porn magazines, the naked bodies reminding him of corpses piled on top of one another in old newsreels of concentration camps.
‘Desidera?’ What would you like?
The young man in the loose white shirt behind the counter was so tall his hair brushed the roof of the kiosk. His huge hands at the ends of bony wrists were pushing newspapers into place. Martin felt vaguely that the hands were reproaching him.
‘The Times, per favore.’
A tobacco-stained palm was held out for the coins. Martin trembled a little as he took the newspaper; he had forgotten his coat that morning. A momentary gust of wind, which had somehow managed to find its way into the metro, lifted the first few pages at one corner.
Turning to leave, Martin felt the back of his arm push into something soft. A woman’s breast.
‘Oh, mi scusi!’ he apologised.
The woman, who had black hair streaked with white, smiled absent-mindedly.
‘It’s nothing,’ she murmured, almost to herself.
Martin made his way through the tunnel under Piazza Duomo towards the entrance to the Linea Rossa route. Three boys rushed by, zig-zagging through the sombre commuters, letting out whoops of glee. Martin would have done the same thing himself thirty odd years ago.
There was a crowd around the barrier. No one was being allowed through. A theatrical whisper rippled closer, repeated itself: ‘The line is blocked. A girl’s thrown herself under the train.’
A young man with a briefcase appeared at Martin’s side. ‘How long do we have to wait?’ he asked loudly.
‘As long as it takes to clear away the pieces,’ a woman’s voice answered.
The young man laughed nervously and moved away. A couple holding hands, not realising that the barrier was closed, pushed in front of Martin.
‘Ma per l’amore di Dio!’ For the love of God. The voice came from Martin’s right. The woman with streaked hair. She was staring straight ahead with a pained expression, her heavily-lipsticked mouth twisted in a grimace. Her pale, grey coat, soaked on one side from the rain, hung open. A scuffed handbag was slipping from the edge of her shoulder.
Her quizzical eyes caught his. Martin held her gaze for a moment then looked away at the crowd shifting in front of him. There was no sign of any movement through the barrier. He thought of the girl who had thrown herself under the train. Had she lived alone like him? Couldn’t stand the idea of another evening in a tiny, rented room? She wouldn’t even get a mention in the local paper. There were suicides every week on the Milan metro.
The woman was looking at her watch now. She turned and started to make her way back through the crowd as they stretched their necks to see what was happening at the barrier. Reluctantly, they let her through. Taking advantage of the passage she was carving, Martin followed behind.
It was growing dark. Rain shone in the light from the endless windows of the Rinascenti department store.
The woman had stopped to look at the lifeless figures modelling the latest autumn fashions. Martin glanced round at her as he passed. He hadn’t meant to follow her, had no purpose in mind. In any case, she took no notice of him.
There was a quiet bar a few yards away, where he could sit with a coffee, scour his out-of-date newspaper. He looked back once more at the woman. She was leaning with one hand against the cold, wet stone of an arch, while with the other she raised her foot. The heel of her shoe hung from the sole by a few threads.
‘Merda!’ With a strong, swift movement, she tore off the heel completely, and let out a raucous laugh. ‘Now I’ve got one leg longer than the other.’
It was a moment before Martin realised she was talking to him.
‘That was bad luck,’ he said. ‘Look, I was going to get a drink. Care to join me?’ He nodded towards the small flashing sign at the bend of the street.
‘Was it my accent which gave me away?’ he asked ironically. Although Martin had lived in Italy for over a decade, his English accent remained.
‘Your accent – and your newspaper,’ she laughed. The badly-folded Times was sticking out of his coat pocket.
She limped uncertainly toward him, stopped, winced.
‘May I?’ Martin put his hand under her elbow. She squeezed it to her side and he felt again the softness of her breast through her pale grey coat. They walked slowly to the bar.
With an effort Martin pushed open the heavy glass door. Holding onto his arm, the woman lowered herself into a chair by a marble-topped table at the window.
Here, too, was the smell of rain, mingled with the tangy perfume of thin slices of lemon left at the bottom of empty, ungathered glasses. A young barman with a dark, shiny sweep of hair was ticking off items on a list next to the till on the counter. He barely glanced at Martin and the woman. The hands on the face of the ancient clock on the wall showed five past seven. In a few minutes, the bar would be closing. Martin wondered where the padrone was. He watched the barman take out a large calculator from under the counter and begin to press buttons, running the fingers of his other hand down the list. Martin was almost reluctant to disturb him. He reached over to the next table, helped himself to a drinks menu and pushed it over to the woman. He still didn’t know her name.
‘Grazie.’ She opened the menu, squinted into it for a moment and glanced round the bar. Small lamps lit a dozen or so empty tables. The faces of 1960’s film stars were barely visible on the walls. A tightly-twisting spiral staircase led up to more tables behind a low, wooden balcony.
‘Never been here before,’ she said.
‘I sometimes come here for a drink after work.’ He thought of the times he had sat here alone among small groups of business people or young couples, nursing a Martini in one hand, a newspaper in the other.
‘We’re closed.’ The young barman was looking at them, waiting for them to get up and go. To Martin, the idea of going outside again was suddenly unbearable.
‘But you usually close at seven thirty. By the way, where is Signor Bianchi?’ The padrone always made him feel welcome. He was a regular customer, after all.
‘The padrone is out of town on business today.’ The young man looked downcast for a moment.
‘Couldn’t we have just one drink?’ The woman’s mouth opened in a wide, sensuous smile. She cocked her head to one side.
The barman hesitated, brought the edge of his hand thoughtfully to his chin. ‘As I say, we’re closed, but I can offer you just one drink.’
‘Grazie. Molto gentile.’ Martin knew he would be charged double, but what did it matter at this moment?
The woman’s eyes lit with a sudden, child-like gratitude. She ran her finger down the menu, squinting again, then stopped.
‘What would you recommend?’
‘I usually have a coffee – or grappa.’
‘Hmmm. Maybe our young man will have something to recommend?’
Martin glanced over at the barman, who spoke without looking up.
‘Take the rum with coconut juice. House special.’
The woman smiled warmly. ‘Va bene.’
Without waiting to see if that was what Martin wanted too, barman reached up to a shelf and took a dark-coloured bottle.
The sweet smell of coconut wafted over to their table. The woman’s nose wrinkled. She laughed softly. ‘Maybe you should come more often when the padrone isn’t here.’
Martin nodded and looked at her white, plump, ringless hand lying on the table. Without thinking, he put his own hand over it. He felt her knuckles rise gently against his palm. He was suddenly no longer lonely.
The drink was stronger than he expected. Although he could hardly taste the rum, the effect was like that of a vodka he had once drunk on a business trip to Moscow. A warmth spread from his stomach all the way through him. The woman took out a purple and white packet of king-sized cigarettes and held it open towards him. Martin shook his head.
‘I’m Martin, by the way.’
She raised her chin and blew a ring of smoke between them. ‘Aurora.’
‘That’s a beautiful name.’
She let out a hoarse laugh. ‘That’s what my ex-husband said when I met him. My two kids laugh at it. “How can you have such an old-fashioned name, Mamma?” they say.’ She stubbed out the cigarette she had barely started, and touched his bare wedding finger. ‘And you – not married?’
Martin suddenly felt ashamed. He had given up long ago on the idea of getting married. Too many relationships gone bad.
Aurora had lit another cigarette and was looking into his face, lips parted with expectation.
‘N-no, never married,’ he heard himself mutter. ‘Came close to it a couple of times, but…’
‘Mi dispiace.’ I’m sorry.
‘Don’t be.’ He was surprised by how bitter his voice sounded. He lifted his glass, and drained it to the bottom. She was frowning now at the rain running in rivulets down the dark window. He wondered what she was thinking. The silence was broken only by the rustling of the barman’s newspaper on the marble counter. Her hand left his for a moment, making him feel suddenly bereft, but then her fingers reached out and gently stroked his cheek. As she kissed his lips slowly and heavily, more drinks were placed on the table. The barman winked at Martin without saying anything.
The bar below swirled, seemed a long way off, almost inviting him to let go and fall. Martin clung to the rail even tighter as he came down the spiral staircase. The woman’s head was bent over something on the table, shoulders hunched unnaturally. He had lost count of the number of drinks they’d had.
The barman sat on a stool, chin in one hand. His eyes lazily followed Martin’s uncertain progress towards the table. He nodded at the woman.
‘Hadn’t you better get her home?’
Aurora’s face was buried in the back of her hands on the table. A thin swirl of smoke rose from an unfinished cigarette in the ashtray. Home. Where was that? He touched her hair.
‘What have you done to me?’ she whispered.
‘I need to get you home.’
‘I’ll call a taxi, signore.’ The barman was already dialling a number, the knowing look on his face replaced by a kind of impatience.
Martin slid an arm under hers to lift her. She leaned with all her weight against him. He felt once more the softness of her breast.
The taxi wound its bumpy way between cars and long orange trams to the address she had mumbled. Headlights swung over rain-spattered puddles. The driver was strangely silent for a Milanese. Every now and again he would dart a nervous look at them in his rear-view mirror. The woman had fallen asleep, her head on Martin’s shoulder, her hand resting on his thigh. A sweet-sickly smell drifted up from her half open mouth. At the next crossroads, the taxi turned left, leaving the city centre, then moved more slowly between blocks of flats lining almost-deserted streets. A tall, black girl leaned forward out of nowhere and waved at the taxi as it passed.
They were just a few minutes away from the woman’s street. Martin recognised the address. He had once lived in that same street nearly twenty years before when he first moved to Milan as an English teacher. He remembered the crumbling houses, the rusty balconies around ancient courtyards. An old couple had rented out a room to him. Nearly all the people there were old. Until a few years ago, this had been a separate village.
‘Where are we going?’ Her eyes half-opened, then closed again. The hand shifted a little on his thigh.
‘I’m just taking you home. We’re almost there.’
‘Bastardo,’ she murmured.
The glow of a fire on a derelict building site caught Martin’s eye. Children stood around it, laughing. A flame flickered high for a moment, showing taller figures, men and women, standing further back.
‘Zingari!’ Gypsies. The taxi driver spat the word out.
The taxi turned into the tiny street Martin had not seen for almost twenty years. But it was too dark to see anything. The driver went slowly, trying to find the number Martin had given him. He finally stopped and put out his palm without turning around. Martin pressed twenty euros into the hand, although he knew it was too much. The driver said nothing.
Aurora’s eyes were still closed. She was breathing more heavily now. Martin carefully opened the taxi door and stepped out onto the wet road, letting her head slide to the seat. ‘Un momento, per favore.’ Martin reached back into the taxi, hooked his arms under hers, and slowly pulled her out onto the road. Her stockinged feet slid into a puddle. One of her shoes lay on the floor of the taxi. The one with the missing heel must still be in the bar. She lay limp against his thighs, her streaked hair tumbling into the darkness. Putting one arm under her thighs, he lifted her round the back of the purring taxi. For a moment he felt like a murderer looking for somewhere to bury the body.
There was a sudden splash of water on his feet. The taxi was leaving. He had forgotten to ask the driver to wait for him. He watched it move up the deserted street and turn a corner.
His arms ached. There was no movement.
‘Aurora, you’re home.’
He shook her.
‘Aurora, where’re your keys?’
He let her down as gently as he could onto the broken, wet paving stones, and slid his jacket under her head. It occurred to him that he could just walk off, leave her there. But no, he had to get her into her house, make sure she was okay, call a taxi and get back to his own place. Her handbag lay twisted under her shoulder. He knelt down and pulled the handbag out. There was a brief murmur of protest. She rolled onto one side, curling up foetus-fashion.
At first, he couldn’t get the handbag open. The two hooks seemed to be frozen together. Then suddenly it opened wide, contents spilling onto the pavement. Martin searched with his hands. A lighter. He flicked it on. Scattered across the pavement lay a small address book, a tampon, a lipstick roller, a powder box, a pack of chewing gum, a packet of cigarettes, a broken cigarette on its own, a scuffed purse, a small bottle of white pills, a mobile phone, scraps of paper, and – what he was searching for – a large key with some smaller keys on a ring. He tried the large key in the lock of the old wooden door and turned it twice.
The glow from the lighter showed a stone-tiled floor and an uneven staircase. The ceiling was so low it gave Martin the idea he was peering into a doll’s house. He went back to the woman, took a deep breath and lifted her.
On a dusty bedside table was a photograph of two children, a girl with a pageboy haircut and a cheeky grin, and a boy with a rather downcast look. Martin had the impression that the photo was several years old. The bedroom stank of stale sweat. Aurora fell from his arms onto the bed.
Martin walked over to the shutters and pulled them open. A dog started to bark a few houses away. Dimly he could see what looked like some shirts hanging up in the small courtyard. He turned back to the bed. Aurora was breathing through her mouth, lips parted like a child’s.
Slowly he peeled off her wet stockings, the flesh cold against the back of his hand. Then he covered her with her sheet and blanket. Now it was time to call a taxi and leave.
But first, just for a moment, he would lie beside her, feel the warmth of her body once more against him.
IAN SEED’s collections of poetry and prose poetry include The Underground Cabaret (Shearsman, 2020), Operations of Water (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2020), and New York Hotel (Shearsman, 2018), a TLS Book of the Year. Most recently, his chapbook, I Remember, was published by Red Ceilings Press. His translations include Bitter Grass (Shearsman, 2020), from the Italian of Gëzim Hajdari, and The Thief of Talant (Wakefield Press, 2016), the first translation into English of Le voleur de Talan, Pierre Reverdy’s hybrid novel of poetry and prose. The River Which Sleep Has Told Me, translated from the Italian of Ivano Fermini, will soon be published in the Fortnightly Review’s series of Odd Volumes, while The Dice Cup, his translation of Max Jacob’s Le cornet à dés, will be published by Wakefield Press in December 2022.