Last week I posted a non-fictional account about my first trip to Rome, which tells about The day I fell over Caravaggio. On returning home from that memorable trip I decided to write a fictional account of that experience. Like any fiction, much is borrowed from fact. The centre of Rome; the streets walked, the sites visited etc. However, it is the events that took place one very hot summer’s day which I have delighted in retelling in a very different way.
Chiaroscuro If he hadn’t tripped on the stairs, he would have walked hatless into the summer morning, be enjoying the breeze on his scalp, and the strawberry gelato, as he sat on the Trevi steps gazing at the fountain. The gelato, which had no hope in 34 degrees Celsius of remaining in its cone, and dripped, despite frantic licking, down his sleeve, onto his jeans. Sweat trickled from under the fedora.
Dougal blamed Sarah, for hiding behind the hotel room door the previous afternoon, thinking she’d surprise him. He blamed the heavy suitcase that catapulted him across the carpet, burning his forehead, knocking him out. Mostly however, he blamed his own stupidity.
Now Sarah had deserted him, run down the steps to the fountain and was calling, waving, “Dougal. Dougal! Take a photo of me!” You’ll be no bigger than a peanut in that mob, he thought, as he stood, waved, and took six or seven images. She wouldn’t like any of them.
He truly didn’t have time for this trip to Rome: there was a seminar to run in under a week, and somehow a PowerPoint presentation to finish. He’d dashed from Cambridge, England where he’d been confabulating with senior editors, plus the co-author of the forthcoming The Metaphysical Landscape of Human Endeavour: psychosocial implications for the next millennium, and he still had to do the revisions.
He was still reeling from the fact she had announced, “I’ve always wanted to see Italy,” six weeks out from this European trip, when she had declined all past offers to join him on academic sojourns, arguing her own full agenda. “Goodness,” he replied, wondering how he’d fit her in his.
“That was fun,” she bubbled, sitting beside him, “Let me see the pictures.”
“Can you spot yourself?”
“There. See?” Dougal looked at the screen, witnessed the glowing face, the wide smile: her happiness. He looked at the fountain, where babies splashed in the water, lovers kissed, tourists threw coins, hundreds capturing their pixel moment of fun. Dougal had a sudden urge to crush all that happiness, like paper, between his hands.
“Oh Dougal, your shirt. Do you want me to wet a hanky?”
No, I do not, he thought. “I’ll wash it back at the hotel,” he said. “It can wait.”
“Why don’t we visit a church?” Sarah said. “It will be cooler inside.”
Churches were a bigger anathema than hats to Dougal but he was swayed by the temperature suggestion and hauled himself to his feet. His wife was wearing a loose sleeveless dress and red sandals that matched. She hadn’t even raised a sweat.
“As long as it’s not far,” he said, and gingerly dabbed his head with a tissue. The burn still stung.
“You liked Rome, you told me. It was one of the reasons I decided to come.”
Yes, and I was twenty-two, he thought, seeing the black and white holiday photos as if laid before him: his mop of dark hair, the cheeky grin. Striking a cavalier’s pose, in front of the Pantheon, The Sistene Chapel. When he used to enjoy antiquity. It wasn’t what he’d been that concerned him necessarily, but rather, what he’d become.
Dougal traipsed after Sarah along Piazza Navona doglegging into Via Santa Giovanni d’Arco. The church she found was fairly unremarkable, yet reliably cool.
“What’s it called?” he asked his wife.
“San Luigi dei Francesci.”
“Saint Louis of the French. That’s a joke.”
“What is the matter Dougal? Is your head bothering you?”
“What’s with the mood then?”
“Not used to the heat I guess. You go on, I’ll follow you in.”
Sarah took a large scarf from the box by the entrance, tied it across her shoulders, ensuring it covered her chest and stepped from the gloomy alcove into the gloomier church. Dougal removed his hat and mopped his head. Was he concussed? He could lay claim to that perhaps; make it an excuse for what really ailed him. He shuffled about for a while, watched a group of Japanese follow a flag-waving woman, and huddle in awe as their leader translated the church’s attractions. Dougal caught the word ‘Caravaggio’. The Japanese moved in unison up the steps.
He positioned his shoes under the ‘no camera’ signs and entered the building. Three vast Caravaggio paintings hung on the walls of a side chapel. At least his hearing was still acute. A tourist fed a coin into a box, tripping a timer, illuminating the paintings. He gasped. He’d studied these works thirty-odd years back – from the Saint Matthew series. What were they called? The Calling of St. Matthew, Matthew and the Angel, Martyrdom of St. Matthew – that was it. The form, the amazing chiaroscuro: it was as he’d remembered, only so much more. The size of the canvasses was astonishing; they must easily be two or more metres wide. The light faded. Dougal rummaged in his pockets, dropped a coin through the slot, nudged closer to the cordon.
Dougal hadn’t thought of Caravaggio in years. He’d dropped Art History at his father’s insistence after shaky grades, in all but the art paper surprisingly in his first year. ‘Art’s for pansies’, he recalled his father saying. Plus, a lot of rambling about buckling down or he’d ‘find himself up shit creek without a paddle’. Good with words was his dad.
But now, he wanted to share his found enthusiasm with Sarah, ask her opinion of the works, except she was nowhere in the Church of St Louis that he could see, none of the alcoves, chapels, or the front porch. She was also not responding to his texts. Dougal retraced his steps around the church interior, before locating his shoes and walking around outside. She can’t have gone far, he kept thinking, until his watch showed he’d been waiting over an hour. Another circling of the exterior and Dougal decided he would head for their hotel. It was the most sensible course of action. His phone vibrated. He reached for his glasses. It wasn’t his wife. Don’t txt, or ph 2day he texted back. I’ll contact u soon.
Dougal kept to the shopping streets, as much as he could, avoiding the ‘come hither’ of Gucci, or Ermenegildo Zegna, trying to catch his eye from the windows. He removed the fedora at one stage and fanned his face. The heat was intolerable. He wished he could dunk his head in the Trevi fountain, or the whole of him come to that. The nearer he got to the hotel the sicker he felt, regretting the strawberry gelato with every acrid burp that found its way from his gut. What a frightful thing worry was. If only he hadn’t gone in that blasted church. She would have come out, found him at the entrance, they would be seated in a cool café by now, his equilibrium, tempered, if not restored. The conversation he’d delayed for too long would have started. There would be tears, they were expected; but ultimately, she’d understand his reticence. She was always the sensible one in their relationship – the leveler, if he got wound up about some issue with his peers, or a student. Sarah had a way of bringing him back to earth, sometimes abruptly, but he could trust her to put an objective spin on the problem.
What if she hadn’t returned? The thought of dealing with police, or hospitals was detestable.
Dougal entered the hotel room, looking down this time, watching for the step he’d missed without his glasses. “What happened to you?” Sarah called, propped up on the bed, an opened book beside her. The silk gown looked good on her; enhanced the green of her eyes. “I might ask you the same question,” he said, moving closer.
“Come on. I know you hate churches.”
“But this time Sarah, I went in.”
Dougal heard Sarah’s scoff the moment his stomach declared war. Thank God for small mercies and smaller hotel rooms he thought as he retched into the toilet bowl. He was too ill to apologize for the blasphemy.
“Can I do anything to help?” Sarah called.
“A cup of tea would be good,” he called back, seated on the toilet, holding his clammy head. After a wash and teeth-clean Dougal felt as near normal as he was likely to get. Time to face the music.
Sarah was setting out cups and saucers on the rickety table. Oh. She’d dressed – in a blue top and jeans. Her long, pale feet rudely naked against the red of the mat.
“Sit down,” she said, patting the seat of a chair.
“Look. I’m sorry if I spoilt your day,” he said. “Like I said. I think the heat got to me.”
“You’re okay now?” she asked, pouring his tea in a mug. It sported the Italian flag and a soccer ball. He was a rugby fan.
“I should watch what I eat I suppose.”
“Points to you for the reinforcement.”
“I’m sorry you’re sick, okay?”
“And I’m sorry for being such a misery. I’ll try and do better tomorrow.” He wanted to tell her about what happened in London but he didn’t know how to broach the subject. Should he say something like … By the way, wife of twenty-two years, I have something calamitous to impart. It shall impact on you pretty badly I’m guessing, and as I have never been in this position, and never dreamed of being in this position, I might add, I haven’t a bleeding clue how to do this properly, or at all come to that. Dougal sipped at the warm sweet tea. He added an extra spoon of sugar and finished the drink.
“Did you see the Caravaggios?” he said instead, thinking he’d soften the landing a little.
“In the church.”
“I must have missed them,” she said.
“They were on the left, in a small chapel. They were amazing Sarah. I can’t believe you didn’t see them.”
“It was claustrophobic with so many people. I didn’t stay long.”
Dougal wandered to the window, idly observing the brick tiles, the dovecotes and straggling rooftop gardens. He pushed the window open and looked down on the narrow street. Two men stood smoking outside a delicatessen, breaking their conversation as a young woman walked past. She wore high heels, which accentuated her calf muscles. It wasn’t a look Dougal usually admired. A motorbike droned by. He closed the window and sat back at the table. Sarah was reading the newspaper her cell phone beside her.
“You didn’t answer my texts,” he said, “I sent three from the church.”
“I didn’t get them,” she said. “Probably a weak reception.”
“Can I check?”
“Don’t you believe me?”
He reached to touch her hand. She pulled away.
“Sarah, let’s not argue. I was wondering if you’d like to go shopping while I have a rest. Via Nazionale leads down to a number of old sites, if you’re interested. I’ll make enquiries about somewhere nice to go for dinner. How does that sound?”
“Good idea,” she said, closing the paper. “You look tired.”
Dougal undid his belt, hoisted off his shoes and lay back on the bed. He watched his wife apply makeup and brush her hair. She was still a good-looking woman.
“Can I get you anything for your stomach?” she asked, slipping her feet into sandals.
“I’ll be right. You go enjoy yourself.”
“I shall,” she said, planting a kiss on the undamaged side of his head.
Dougal lay looking at the smoke-stained ceiling for several minutes before reaching for his phone. The receptionist answered. He sensed a straightening of her back as he began his apology. “I haven’t told my wife yet,” he said. “Hence my abrupt reply to your text. I know I should have said something by now, but it’s damned hard. She’s on holiday you know. First time in Europe.”
“Mr. Patterson. The tests have come through. Mr. Willoughby-Knight has asked me to make an appointment for you.”
The clamminess Dougal experienced earlier was a nice dream compared to the chill engulfing his body. “Is it bad?” he asked, envisaging a by-pass, or valve replacement surgery and the weeks, months, off work.
“I am sorry Mr. Patterson, you will have to pose your questions to the doctor. Now, is it possible for you to make Thursday 17that 2pm?”
If he left straight after the seminar, it was possible, if he could get a direct flight to Heathrow. “Pencil me in,” he said.” I shall confirm as soon as possible.” On top of the plane fare, there was a night in a hotel, a taxi to the doctors, all coming out of his pocket. Couldn’t claim that on expenses.
Dougal drank several glasses of cloudy water chucking back paracetamol with the last. He removed all his clothes and entered the shower. Closing his eyes, he turned his face to the water and stood there, until the cold forced him out.
Dressed in a fresh shirt and jeans, he arranged himself and laptop at the small table, stabilizing the wobbly leg with a wedge of paper first. He searched for appropriate flights and found more than he’d expected, but held off on the booking, expecting that Sarah would want to come once he’d broken the news.
After making coffee, Dougal sat again at the computer, arranging and re-arranging the PowerPoint images until they were displayed in a well-constructed and interesting way. He might not be Caravaggio but he was rather good at design; it might be something he could develop if he was forced to retire.
“I thought you’d have asked already,” Sarah said, as Dougal studied the map the receptionist had marked his selection of restaurants on. “Ran out of time,” he replied. “He said Allesio was a favourite. Rates it highly.”
“It will have to do I guess.”
Sarah had changed into a black sleeveless dress, and was wearing the jet necklace, that he’d given her on her thirtieth, or fortieth, birthday. The sun was good for Sarah, turned her skin a buttery bronze.
“Your head’s nearly better,” she said, looking up at his face. He touched the burn briefly, pleased it no longer hurt, but more pleased about the fedora he’d discarded. He grinned. What fun that was: making the bin, and from that height.
Narrow steps fed into a basement restaurant, with intimate seating areas fringed with maroon velvet drapes. “Takes me back to the ’sixties,” Dougal said.
“I like it. It’s quaint,” Sarah said, taking her place at the table. An unsmiling waiter arrived with a wine list, which he handed to Dougal to read.
“Two Prosecco thanks,” Dougal said. “Do I like Prosecco?” his wife asked him.
“You like bubbles, don’t you?” “I might have wanted red.”
Dougal sighed, and handed her the wine menu. “We can have one later if you like.”
Sarah scanned the list and raised her right hand. The waiter, with the Prosecco on a tray, deposited the drinks and swooped to her side.
“A bottle of Brunello di Montalcino please.”
Dougal raised his eyebrows and let them drop. He’d just have to wear this one.
“A very good choice,” the waiter said, and whistled, as he walked off.
“Probably gets a commission,” Dougal muttered, as he raised his glass to his wife.
“A big one, I hope,” Sarah said, clinking glasses.
It was difficult choosing a meal without major calorie intake. Good cholesterol or not. Dougal went for the prawn ravioli with salad. Sarah had no such reservations, ticking off all the courses. Even he, at his most indulgent, had never eaten five.
“You have to taste the tiramasu,” she said, holding out a spoonful.
“Rather not,” he said, tapping his girth. Sarah’s eyes widened. “Really,” she said, and started giggling. Giggling for Christ’s sake.
He noted she’d finished the red.
“Shall we go somewhere for coffee?” he asked, trying to keep the tone breezy, after paying the astronomical bill.
“Lead the way James,” she said, hooking a cardigan across her shoulders. “Oops,” she said as she stood up. Dougal grabbed her elbow as she stumbled forward and tucked her arm close to his side. One block became two, and he was struggling to keep Sarah upright. A café. Thank God.
After two espressos and several glasses of water Dougal sank back against the cracked leather cushion and reached for Sarah’s hand. She placed hers on top before pulling away.
“You okay now?” he asked, dipping his head, searching for her eyes.
“Yes. And no,” she said, lifting, then lowering her gaze.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for some time.” They were his lines. She looked at him as if she was leading an interview; the eyes calm, probing. Three creases appeared on his wife’s forehead. He opened his palms towards her, dropped back in the chair. “Off you go then.”
“I tried to tell you back home. I did. But you were always too busy. On that damned computer. Or out. Always fucking working.”
“My job calls for it,” he said, lowering his voice, praying that Sarah would follow suit. He had never heard her use the ‘f’ word before.
“It’s given me plenty of time to think, that’s for sure.”
“About leaving you.”
“Dougal. I’m sorry.”
“You came all the way to Europe to drop that on me?” he asked, leaning forward, grappling for her hand.
“Stupid I know.”
“You’re telling me.”
“You’re a good man Dougal, but there’s …”
“Someone else?” he finished. She nodded.
Dougal thought of asking more questions, but all of them would be trite, all of them clichés. He looked at the stranger sitting opposite. His wife. It was as if all their years together had been drawn-up like a monstrous fishing net and its burgeoning load released from a great height. A knot of pain spread from his stomach across his chest and down his left arm.
“Are you all right?” Sarah asked.
Dougal pushed up on his hands and left the table. He was found on the floor of the lavatory ten minutes later and carried to a settee to await an ambulance. Sarah hovered beside him, fanning him with a menu. But Dougal was thinking of the shimmering brilliance of Caravaggio’s paintings, the wonderful play of dark and light. “It’s a shame you missed the chiaroscuro,” he said, as the siren wailed through the night.