Journalism

Roman short story

March 11th, 2004

Jan 10th (Weekend magazine)

Rome. La Dolce Vita. Rome. The Eternal City. Rome, where the snow falls through the unclosed dome of The Pantheon.

I thought you were disappearing – the white snow wrapping you. Your outlines wavered. You sparkled. You had stepped inside an ordinary phenomenon and you had turned into a miracle. You were not disappearing, you were landing. Where you landed was me.

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The Pantheon – 27BC Marcus Agrippa designed it 125 AD Hadrian rebuilt it. 609 AD, it was consecrated as a Christian site Later, much later, Pope Urban V11 stole its bronze roof for his fat baldacchino- a St Peter’s bed canopy, swollen as sex, hijacked into piety

The Pantheon – 43 meters high. 43 meters in diameter. The open dome is 9 meters across, and under its weather-changed mysteries, I found you.
Sunlight-shafted in summer. In winter, a falling cylinder of snow. Spring blossom turns the stone floor bridal, and autumn leaves hang in its wind currents. Withered like parchment, crunched with drought, your future might be here. Catch one. Read it. What does it say?

Seasonally adjusted, but indifferent to time, the Pantheon waits its moment, lazy for the miracle, but prepared to let it happen, especially if the tourists are looking the other way.

There was no one there. The guided-group-Free-on-Sunday, were between the second and third chapel on the left – tomb of Raphael.
I stood alone, or so I thought, until the dome poured snow and you stepped out of it – time’s hologram, and snap-shot splendour.

There was no photograph. It doesn’t matter.
‘Have we met before?’ I said

‘Yes,’ you said, which was strange, because we hadn’t.

We agreed to share a taxi to the Vatican. I wanted to look at the looted bronze and you wanted to fill a phial with Holy Water for your mother.
‘Is your mother a Catholic?’

‘No, but she doesn’t take any chances.’

We went inside, and walked over to the Michelangelo sculpture of Mary and the dead Christ. The proportions are wrong, which is why it works so powerfully. Mary is about eight feet tall, judging from the measurement of her limbs. Inside the Christian emblem is a lost goddess.

Pagan Rome. Christian Rome. Somewhere Michelangelo didn’t take any chances either.

‘Do you remember that lunatic who came here in the 1970’s and tried to smash the thing with a hammer?’

‘Why would anyone want to do that?’

Why indeed? But things of beauty are destroyed forever. We do it all the time.
I hid inside my own thoughts for a moment. I was in this city because I had taken a hammer to my life, and a restoration job wasn’t possible. I would have to make something new using what material I had. It isn’t always easy to know the difference between vandalism and change. We are more complicated than works of art, though usually less important. Once I’m gone, it won’t matter, all the more reason then, to try and get it right while I’m still here.

‘They never get it right,’ you said.

What? Were you reading my mind?

‘The Holy Water. Either the place is bird-bath deep in the stuff, or there’s not a drop for a dying soul.’

Yes that’s it. I was smiling. Maybe there is a God after all. Maybe this is a message not to be too tough on myself. I began to think about kissing you.
We went down onto the river and walked along its wide banks until we could come up in the Travestere district. I like the rough feel of the place, the coffee served hot and cheap, the trattorias without menus – just a couple of tables, and eat whatever is in the kitchen. I asked for meatballs and bitter red salad. You got a plate of lentils and sausage.

Roman Rome, Renaissance Rome, Modern Rome. How have they learned to live so well side by side? For us, the idea of progress means that the past is gone. Most likely the past gets forgotten. At best it turns into history. Here, the past stays alive in buildings and DNA – the Caravaggio faces, the group of boys on a street corner, the washing stretched between a Tiberius pillar and a medieval roof-brace.
It was always so. The Forum has a medieval town inside it. The medieval buildings by the Coliseum open onto eighteenth century houses. Modern Romans get on a tram by the eighteenth century Teatro Argentina and glide into the suburbs behind the RipaHotel, ultramodern stop-off for airline pilots and Japanese.

I took you onto the tram. We watched it coming towards us. ARGENTINA it says in digital letters at the head of its military-green body. I first started riding it because it sounded so romantic; would it take me to ranches deep in pampas grass under star-punctured skies?

No. It took me to the suburbs, the places where visitors don’t go – but here too, Rome is re-inventing itself, and turning warehouses into apartments, that look back to Rome’s beginnings – the Coliseum, lit and visible, monument to death and change – like Rome herself.

We never look at someone we know unless we are angry with them, or unless we want to kiss them. Familiar faces are always blurred faces. The pleasure of someone new is in the looking. I was watching you closely as we stood together on the packed tram.

This longing I feel is not quite authentic. It is the city that is seducing me. I run my fingers over the stones and time tingles my fingertips. Past and future are electrically present here. I might meet Shelley on the Spanish Steps. I might meet myself, twenty years from now, living in an apartment that looks onto a Byzantine mosaic.

Possibility becomes suggestive here. Rome is a porous city. Pouring through me, are the chances I might take, You seem like a chance.

So we walk until late at night, dropping into bars for Prosecco, telling each other stories that may or may not be true. Facts matter less here. The feeling is everything.

We guess at faces. We pin identities like medals on unsuspecting strangers. We watch for ghosts – there are always ghosts, haunting street corners and the porticos of churches. Then it happens as I hoped it would, and laughing to dodge the millionth scooter of the day, we are in each other’s arms, and the laughter turns to kisses.

I won’t see you again, I am sure of that, but it doesn’t matter.

We went back to my apartment.

In the morning I was woken as I am always here, by the early noises of the street market; feet on the pavement, voices arguing, crates shunted in and out of vans, a bird whistling in a cage, and behind that, a fountain, and behind that, the rumble of the traffic.

I leave the window open, even in winter, because I like the smells; rocket and onions, the red earth of porcini, the black earth of truffles, the clay on the potatoes, and the warm greenhouse smell of tomatoes sprayed with water to keep them fresh.

My body was perfectly still, but fully alive, and I thought that this is what happiness is – these moments of calm aliveness.

You were next to me sleeping. I held your hand. I love the warmth and simplicity of another body sleeping next to me.

I can’t keep this day. I can only live it now. I can’t save it up for another time. Another time will be another time. This is today. My gift. One life. One day.
I got up quietly, dressed and went downstairs and drank coffee standing up in a little bar. I was sleepy and happy, not because I wanted anything but because I didn’t. It will be enough to go now, to wrap the day round me like a warm coat.

I walked across to the church and lit a candle in the ultra modern Offertorio Electrico, then, just to be sure, a bought an old-fashioned taper too. I prayed for you, even though you are an invention – a story I told myself, because Rome is a story that has never stopped telling itself – lovers, murders, buildings, power, scandal, sex.

At the church door I saw you leaving the main door to our apartments. You live there and so do I. I know nothing about you, except that you are Irish, and that one day you asked me if I knew about the Number Eight tram – Argentina.
I think I’ll run and catch up with you. Who knows?

It doesn’t matter. This is my day. This is Rome. I need to be as true as an animal and as wise as a saint. I shall need the luck of the devil if I am to hold it all in my hands.

‘Ciao Bella!’ My grocer throws me an apple – a model of the world in little, original sin, and the spinning globe, and just an apple.

This day. Don’t drop it. It will be gone soon enough.

Jan 10 2004 (Weekend Magazine)