Chapter One: Kate. Florence, September 1997.
She woke beside Brendan, unsure of where she was, or whether he had been the horseman of her dream. Half-covered by the sheet, he lay belly down, his left hand beneath him, his right reaching out to where she ought to be. She had ended up halfway down the bed, at the edge, naked, her hair hanging over the side.
No… They hadn’t made love. They had arrived late, and had drunk too much, celebrating her birthday. The waiter had a face like a figure from Caravaggio. They had walked in the September rain along the Via dei Calzaiuoli. Brendan had stopped and kissed her in front of everyone. She was thirty-four. They had two children. Beautiful children. She loved her husband, and liked her work. So that was all right, then. Another year closer to forty, but life was good.
A moped whined by outside. A young crowd, spilling out onto the piazza, had woken her at three in the morning. Gently, she pulled over the sheet to cover herself, and listened hard for his soft breath. She loved that, the way he breathed so softly in the mornings, and she reached out her fingers to lightly touch his dishevelled hair. It was still thick and brown, though speckled with grey this past year. And his belly had become a little slack. More than a little, actually. That was all right, too. It was normal for a man of forty-three. Everything was in its place, and the world spun on its axis.
‘You okay?’ he mumbled.
She shifted up in the bed and put her arms around him, the quick movement stunning her temple.
‘Oh, I shouldn’t have done that,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t move too suddenly. It’s not nice.’
She stroked his hair into a semblance of tidiness.
‘Are we really in Florence for my birthday?’
‘Last time I checked.’ He raised himself on his elbows and held her into him.
‘Happy birthday, dear Kate.’
They kissed, though the taste was none too pleasant. ‘Thank you,’ he said, lifting away the hair falling across her face.
‘Thank you for everything.’
‘You old softie,’ she whispered.
She’d be lost without him, too. Maybe she should tell him again that she couldn’t imagine life without his easy going solidity, but she held back, and basked in his compliment. He wanted it to be her moment. Just hers.
‘We stink,’ she said, just to make it even better.
‘Well, you can’t have a good night and not stink afterwards.’
She groaned, and lay on her back, making faces at the ceiling, which had all of six inset lights. She remembered them from the night before, going out like stars.
‘We should get up.’ It was six-thirty in the morning.
When there was no reply, she looked at him, listening to the slow rise and fall of his breath again.
‘Lazy sod,’ she said, puckering up her mouth and nose, but within a few minutes she was asleep too.
Over breakfast she found it hard to look at anything but black coffee. He was looking intently at the wooden beams in the ceiling.
‘Did we pack some aspirin?’
He didn’t reply.
‘Be a pet and get some, will you? I didn’t think it was this bad until we came down.’
She watched him leave the breakfast room. Even now, after all the times she’d told him, he refused to believe he was so handsome. Her mother had often remarked that he was the image of his Irish grandfather, his namesake, and judging by the few photos she’d seen, Deirdre was right. Brendan had been in Ireland as a baby, and Elizabeth had liked to boast how her son was heir to half a mountainside, even when Hugh reminded her that the land had long since been sold. It was one of her foibles, and she clung to it till she died.
He returned, and she almost gagged swallowing the pills, but by the time they were ready to venture out, she felt reasonably human. Brendan, too. And the clear sky over the piazza and vibrant colours and the splash of green lifted her completely. Her only inhibition was her lack of Italian, and that made her just a whit nervous. But there was no point dwelling on it. She was here, at last, having dreamt of coming since her schooldays.
They walked up through the open-air market by the Cappella Medici. Leather bags, scarves, leather clothes, football jerseys, more leather bags. Endless stalls of leather bags. Brendan seemed to know where he was going and she felt a pulse of pleasure as he took her hand. A fine Sunday afternoon, six weeks after Sara Mae was born, slipped into her mind.
The old city was buzzing with mopeds, or vespa as the Italians aptly called them, creating a racket, weaving along the narrow streets. Ranks of them were parked. Hundreds. Maybe they made sense in an old city, if it wasn’t for the noise.
She admired an African woman dressed in a canary yellow headscarf and dark blue dress. How would those colours look on her, she wondered?
He led her down a street and they scrambled aboard a bus, hoping it was headed to the river. Brendan had carefully studied how the system worked, and he visibly relaxed as the machine validated the prepaid tickets first time. They were prepared for the crush, too, but not quite, and they glanced at each other in mild panic as the bus turned a corner and they struggled to maintain their balance. It made her feel like a student, and she laughed at the thought. His eyes shone with happiness, reminding her that he only ever seemed happy when she was happy. If she wasn’t content, he wasn’t content, as if it were his fault. It wasn’t right, even if it was flattering, and yes, it always touched her. But it wasn’t how it should be. He ought to be happy in himself, spontaneously. And yes, she thought guiltily, it would leave her free to be happy in her own right, too.
This wasn’t the time to dwell on it, though, and she clung to him as he held on to the overhead bar for them both.
After a few stops, they found that they had retreated to the centre of the bus, and in the rush to get off, they gave in to the inevitable and got off too when they spotted the river walls.
She thought of the Primavera, the Botticelli painting which she had yearned to see since she was fifteen. It was hard to imagine she would be in its presence in a few minutes. She had tried to copy it many times from a paperback reproduction, especially Mercury in his flimsy scarlet covering and winged boots, nonchalantly ignoring the beauties behind him. She cleared her throat. She had let herself be fooled by several Mercurys through her teens and early twenties, but they had neither dispersed any clouds for her, nor had they brought her any good news, unless it was about their bloated egos. Vain boys, all of them.
He took her hand again as they stepped into bright sunshine and crossed the road to the river wall. The Ponte Vecchio was in the distance, and they stopped to admire
it. Being an architect, Brendan was delighted by Florence.
He had often spoken of how Brunelleschi had built the dome of the cathedral, the Duomo, and she knew he would give a lot to see it, and she would be glad to accompany him; but no, he insisted these few precious hours were hers. His enthusiasm spilled out in describing buildings for her, and he described the architecture and history of the Ponte Vecchio as if he had known it for years. They reached the bridge. The narrow road to the Uffizi was swarming with tourists, and the bridge itself was thronged.
When they reached the Uffizi, they were shocked by the length of the queue. An American woman and her friend broke from it in frustration, muttering that no art, not even great art, was worth standing for four hours.
‘Four hours?’ Kate whispered in despair to Brendan. ‘It’s too much.’
‘But you’ve come all this way to see it.’
‘I know. Iknow. But four hours. I don’t think so.’
‘Maybe we can book for later! Dammit, we should have booked.’
‘Never mind. Do you want to go back to the Ponte Vecchio?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Let’s go to the San Marco to see the Fra Angelica’s.’
‘Alright. Let’s do that then.’
A streetseller had a basket of posters, including a large one of the Primavera. She stopped to look at it, wistfully. Mercury looked more handsome than she had remembered, but Primavera herself looked wonderful in her flower-patterned dress, scattering flowers as she went, bringing the joys of Spring. She was tall and fair and willowy, and it struck her that like the other figures, she did not look Italian, or at least, her idea of Italian. Venus, too, Life herself, directing operations, governing the universe. There was something about the painting that had always puzzled her, and deprived of the real thing, she looked hard at this large poster, determined to solve the mystery.
And then it hit her, and she laughed out loud. The streetseller, who looked like a student, gave her a strange look.
‘What’s so funny?’ Brendan asked quietly.
‘It’s the apples.’
‘What about them?’ he whispered back.
‘Well, they’re not apples after all. I always thought they were apples, even though it’s Spring.’
‘Oh.e’ He broke into a relieved smile. ‘Well, that’s artists for you.’
‘They’re bloody flowers.’
‘Yes, that sounds more like Spring, I would have thought,’ he said, putting his arm across her shoulder. ‘And who are these three beauties here?’
‘The Three Graces.’
‘And the geezer in the trees making a grab for the nubile blondee?’
‘Zephyr, the wind, pursuing Flora. Do you see his wings? Nice little glade, though. And that’s Cupid up at the top, I suppose.’
‘Something weird about them, isn’t there?
The street vendor was looking from one of them to the other, so Brendan bought the poster.
‘We might as well,’ he said, and they walked across Piazza de la Signorina, stopping to see the imposing sculptures of Neptune and David again. A Japanese wedding couple came around from the side, preceded by Renaissance guards armed with pikes, the mother of the bride doing her best to keep her daughter’s train off the ground. Suddenly, tourists were clicking this romantic scene, rather than themselves, in front of the statues.
Once he saw the Museo San Marco, Brendan couldn’t contain himself any longer and rattled on about it.
‘Michelozzo built this. Well, he built part of it, restored the older monastery for old Cosimo. And wait till you see the cloisters and the cells! The simplicity of it! Sorry,’ he said then, ‘I should let you see it for yourself.’
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ she said. ‘It’s great that you know about the building. It puts the work in context for me.’
‘Really? Well in that case, you might not get me to shut up.’
This queue took only half an hour. They entered the cloister, and despite the presence of tourists like herself, she immediately felt the spiritual quality of its proportions, and stopped to take it in. There were flowerbeds and a lovely old tree in the middle of the courtyard.
‘This is Michelozzo’s San Antonio cloister. And the tree is a Lebanon Cedar, in case you were wondering.’
‘Yes, I was wondering. A Lebanon Cedar, no less.’
The rhythm of the columns which supported the cloister was almost sensuous, and the tree in the centre of the garden was perfect, as if it held its exquisiteness to the earth. They went upstairs to the dormitory cells where Fra Angelico painted his scenes from the life of Christ. The one she most wanted to see was the Annunciation, which she had stared at in books many times. She assumed it was a small fresco in a cell, and nothing had prepared her for it as she turned at the top of the stairs.
‘O my God, there it is,’ she said, gripping Brendan’s arm.
They took the last few steps to where it was, on the outside wall of a row of cells, and stood looking in wonder at its unearthly beauty as groups came before it and drifted away.
‘It’s much bigger than I thought,’ she whispered.
‘Just look at the symmetry and rhythm of those columns, and the depth of field,’ Brendan whispered back.
‘I never realised the angel’s wings had those colours,’
‘I thought angels’ wings were white.’
‘They’re like a rainbow from another world.’
She wasn’t religious as such, but the fresco gave her a deep, woman’s sympathy for the Virgin.
‘She’s like a convent girl,’ she said.
‘Maybe she was.’
‘A young nun, do you mean? Look at the light emanating from her bodice!’
‘You’d almost need sunglasses. It’s coming from the angel, of course. She’s like the moon, reflecting sunlight.’
‘That beautiful dark blue of the coat draped over her knees-and what colour green is the lining? It’s fainter than I thought.’
‘It’s like what you find under old waUpaper.’
‘How could you say such a thing!’
‘Do you see the silica sparkling in the light from the window? Just look at it from side on.’
‘Oh yes!’ Oh yes… This tiny detail, which she would have missed, transformed her identification with the fresco, flooding her with an excitement in which she forgot herself completely.
Many of the frescoes were a disappointment after the Annunciation, but there were several which affected her. Noli me Tangere, where Christ appeared to Mary Magdalen, was one; the Transfiguration and Coronation of the Virgin were others she admired, but the Mocking of Christ was the only other to detain her with its power. Christ was seated on a throne, blindfolded, holding a staff and orb. A disembodied head spat at him. On the steps in front of him sat a woman, presumably Mary, and on the other side, a Dominican monk, reading his office with an almost callous detachment to the drama behind him.
‘That incredible light again,’ she said, remembering the Annunciation.
‘No reflection this time.’
‘No. This is the Sun King, after all.’
Yet it was a king for whom one could have a contemporary sympathy. The composition, the virtuality of it, the dark psychological complexity, ensured that.
They ambled through more cells, admiring the Ascension, but eventually exchanged glances and agreed that having seen the great masterpieces, the lesser frescoes only diminished their deep satisfaction. They came back again to the Annunciation. She couldn’t get it out of her head: this girl had been told that she was to be the mother of God. She closed her eyes tight, trying to comprehend the enormity of such a revelation, but it was beyond her. All she could do was revere the beauty of the fresco, its light, its perfect poise, the great gift the artist brought to bear on a sacred, ancient and living theme. She knew something of the history leading to his achievement, and had probably witnessed some of it in the cells, but it was as if it had come from nowhere, from beyond Fra Angelico himself.
They went downstairs, bypassing the shop for the moment to spend some time in the cloister. They strolled around to the Pilgrim’s Hospice, the name of which intrigued her. There were darker, more conventional paintings here, and she didn’t want to linger, but suddenly Brendan pulled her towards him.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘There’s something odd about this one,’ he said, looking at a small painting no bigger than a large book. She looked at it with him but could find nothing odd. She had seen it in books before, but had passed no heed.
‘Did you notice that one of the sick man’s legs is black?’he whispered.
‘Oh, you’re right.’
Saints Cosmo and Damian, two Algerian saints who were blood as well as religious brothers, were healing a sick man on his bed. Brendan had his guidebook out again, and found the reference.
‘You’re not going to believe this,’ he said.
‘I’m not making this up, I promise. It says here that these bright sparks are curing someone called Deacon Justinian who has lost his legby replacing it with one from a black man.’
‘Limb transplant five hundred years before its time. I know someone who’d like their number.’
‘They were martyred, you know. In the third century. Look, their burial is in this other one here.’
‘Let’s go. It’s given me a very unpleasant cold feeling running up and down my spine.’
They went back to the shop, and as well as cards, she bought some reproductions of the Annunciation, the Noli Me Tangere, and the Mocking of Christ.
Then they went into the earlyevening city to shop forthe family. She hadn’t thought of herself as a shopper, but she enjoyed the atmosphere, the sheer Italian style of it all. They went back to the open market near their hotel. The children were easy enough to buy for. Jim wanted a Fiorentina football jersey, Number 9, and she spotted a Leonardo bicycle t-shirt for Sara Mae.
‘I couldget used to this,’ she said.
‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’
‘Now now, don’t turn husband on me.’
He was enjoying it as much as she was, or maybe, and here was that old niggle again, he was enjoying it so much only because she was enjoying it so much. And yet again, she chided herself. Leave it, she thought. Don’t spoil this perfect time, and she drifted into the uncomplicated pleasure of it again.
‘Let’s have something to eat,’ he said.
They ended upin a bar where they had to stand, eating a cheese roll and beer from a barrel. It revived them for a while, but as the shops closed they realised it was time to head back to the hotel for a rest.
As they turned from the stairs into reception, Kate caught her breath. A tall, fair young woman was at the desk, and she smiled as she handed Brendan the key. For an absurd moment, Kate imagined her in a floraldress, scattering flowers on her way.
‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ she whispered once they were in the narrow lift.
‘That depends on what you’re thinking.’
‘Isn’t she the image of Primavera?’
‘Well,yes. Maybe not the image, but certainly reminiscent.’
‘Isn’t she beautiful?’
They reached the second floor,still whispering.
‘Yes. More beautiful than the Primavera, in my humble opinion.’
He raised his eyebrows at her as he opened the door to their room.
‘Well, you’ve got to tell her.’
‘Tell her? Tell her what?’
‘You’ve got to tell her that’s she’s more beautiful than Botticelli’s Primavera.’
‘But Kate,’ he protested as she closed the door after her, ‘I’m a married man. Married to you, in fact. She’ll think I’m trying to cheat on you.’
‘No, she won’t. Well, maybe, but you’ve got to do it. Here,’ she said, taking some paper out of her bag. ‘Leave her a note.’
‘This is ridiculous, Kate,’ he said, taking the paper and pen from her, and sitting on the bed. ‘What do you want me to do this for, anyway?’
‘She could have been the model for the Primavera,couldn’t she?’
‘Yes, but that was painted five hundred years ago.’
‘That’s the point. Imagine, there was a woman just like her, the same features, the same serenity, the same kind of beauty, five hundred years ago. Isn’t that wonderful?’
‘Yes, I suppose it is. It’s only several generations, when you think of it.’
‘Let me see?’
Signorina, you are more beautifulthan Botticelli’s Primavera.
‘Perfect. Now go down to reception and hand it to her.’
‘I think you need to be Italian to pull this off,’ he said with a sigh.
Delighted, she watched him as he walked along the corridor and took the stairs instead of the lift.
He returned almost immediately and she made a face.
‘You didn’t do it, did you?’
‘She’s not on. There’s a man at reception.’
‘Well, just leave it for her.’
‘He could be her husband, Kate.’
‘So? You’d be thrilled if someone paid me a compliment like that, wouldn’t you?’
He raised his eyes to the ceiling.
‘Well, wouldn’t you?’
‘Yes, of course. So long as I didn’t think he had plans seduce you.’
‘Hmm,’ she said doubtfully. ‘Maybe you’re right. Well, we tried.’
‘Let’s have a nap, shall we?’
He lay on his front, his eyes on his arm, and watched him for a while before taking her notebook and lying down too, propping her chin in her hand and intending to write up a diary of the morning, but her dream came back again and she found herself writing it down instead.
In the distance I can see a horseman riding fast across a moor. Horse and man are spattered with mud, but I know the horse is a brilliant white – there’s no doubt about that.
She paused to get it right, her eyes narrowing in concentration.
The rider is driving his horse hard, but they hit an invisible obstacle, which bounced them back, as if they had collided with a giant, invisible rubber sheet. But instead of bouncing them back like cartoon characters, it suddenly swallows them and they disappear. They are in another time, but the odd thing is, I am with them. I have left my old life behind, and I am travelling fast with the horseman and his mount, which is now cleanly white. The sky is clear, the terrain green, but the tracks are dusty and hard. I try to see if it is someone I know. I feel I know him, but we puncture another envelope of time, and we are farther and farther away, in a rainforest now, in eerie light, somewhere unrecognisable. I know I will have to tell myself a simple rhyme to get back, but I can’t remember it. Farther and farther out we go, farther and farther. And then I am overwhelmed into wakefulness, unsure of whether I have woken in another century.
She read over what she had written, then looked at Brendan’s sleeping body. It was him all right, he was the rider, and a ripple of irrational fear crossed her belly.
Nonsense. It was just a dream.
Her sleepiness caught up with her then, and she lay across the crook of her arm – just like Brendan did, she thought, too late – and fell asleep almost instantly. She woke to his touch, and looked up to see him fresh and relaxed.
As he cleaned himself for the evening, she watched him through the open bathroom door. He hummed as he shaved, some ridiculous booby-boo, and she couldn’t help smiling. That’s what husbands were for, to make you smile. But he seemed to know that, too.
She dragged herself off the bed when he was finished, and got into the shower. As the shower soaked her, she revived and soaping her breasts and belly felt good. Unless one of them blew it, they were going to have a fine time tonight.
Brendan wanted to book one of the restaurants recommended in his guide but she wanted to go back to the one to they had stumbled on the night before. She liked it because, like the hotel, it was plain and friendly, and while it was old, it had no pretensions about it.
The Caravaggio waiter knew their measure now, and suggested an aperitif.
Brendan ordered a white wine, a Gallestro, which she she had never heard of. How did he know about that? Oh, of course, his guide book. But still… And he never drank white wine. It gave him heartburn, but she preferred it to red, which gave her headaches even before a hangover. So he drank beer, usually, but not tonight, and he raised his glass to toast her.
‘Here’s to the next thirty-four, when you’ll be more beautiful than ever.’
They tinkled their glasses and smiled at each other like
they hadn’t done in a while. It was delicious and perfectly cool. Sometimes pleasure did amount to happiness. But then, as so often happened when she became aware of being happy, doubt slipped in. Would they still be together in thirty-four years-or even four? He’d be hitting the male menopause in a few years, after all. That old fear.
Damn! Here she was, the one who was blowing it. She sipped some more and smiled.
‘This is lovely, Brendan. Was it recommended in the guide?’
‘Read your menu,’ he said, pleased. ‘I checked it with Paola and Paolo, if you must know.’
‘Oh, how nice. How are they?’
‘Very well. Asking for you and wondering when we’ll visit Tivoli.’
What a nice touch to find out about the food and wine from them, she thought. Their lovely Italian friends, whom they’d met in London.
‘The capsula violeta, the violet capsule, is the important bit, apparently.’
The waiter put their bruscetta before them. It was laden with tomatoes drenched in olive oil, and she crunched into it with pleasure. She followed it with prosciutto con melon. She finished with fresh pecorino, a sheep’s cheese, and cantucci dipped in vino santo-sweet biscuits in desert wine. It was the words she couldn’t resist, as much as the food itself. The novelty and style charmed her, her tongue happily cataloguing the succession of surprises, contrasts, pleasures. She was by now quite pleasantly drunk.
An old lady came into the restaurant and Kate turned to watch her bustle in. As she appeared eccentric and poor, she half expected her to be thrown out, and was pleasantly surprised when the Caravaggio waiter bowed and greeted her with ceremony.
‘Did you see that?’ Kate whispered to Brendan.
The old lady was led to her table, and a litre of beer put before her. The proprietor opened a packet of cigarettes and leaned across his counter to hand it to her. With great delicacy, she took one and the waiter lit it for her, and she puffed happily. She smoked and drank her beer with great relish until her pizza arrived with the same ceremony as before. Kate couldn’t take her eyes off her. She was obviously much loved here, and Kate’s eyes misted over as she watched the delicacy of the waiter towards her.
As they lingered over their digestif, the old lady finished her meal and left, puffing on a fresh cigarette and escorted by the waiter to the door. Kate noticed that the waiter then spoke softly and with great courtesy to a lone Japanese girl, his tenderness for the old lady still with him. She loved this place, and was pleased when Brendan left a large tip.
One part of her wanted to walk amongst the evening crowds along Via dei Calzaiuoli, but a stronger feeling steered them back to the hotel. On the surface, they seemed like a relaxed married couple, smiling and polite as Brendan asked for their key at the desk. But too many pleasures had accumulated during the day. Though they held hands and looked into each other’s eyes in the cramped lift, their calm demeanour lasted until he let her into their room, and switching on the lights, she turned to see him leaning back against the door, staring at her. She let go of everything, only her reflexes keeping her standing. He stepped forward and lightly touched her cheek, as if he was almost sure it would burn him. Her mouth was open, her tongue tip lightly pressed against her teeth. His too. He unbuttoned her skirt and it drifted over her flesh to the floor. She looked down and stepped out of it, casting it aside with her foot.
When she looked up again, his gaze had dropped to her thighs. It was too much, and she sprang at him, tearing off his jacket and shirt. In their furious tussle, they stripped each other, and stretched along the floor, they kissed each other wildly.
She was blind ego, absorbed in the pools of pleasure spreading across her body under his hands. She clawed at him, caressed him too—but it was all to heighten her own gratification.
Then he slowed, and stopped, and rising, guided her to the bed. Dazed, she followed him, shaking. She was trembling from her hair roots to her toe nails. How could he have stopped? She felt weak and powerful at the same time. She knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to kiss her all over and then go down on her. He knew she liked that, but she didn’t want it now, and surprised him by turning him over on his back and sucking like a vampire on his neck. There was something triumphant in doing that, and hearing him groan, and breathing heavily, she looked at his face, his eyes closed, and pulled hard on a fistful of hair and tenderly kissed his lips, slipping the tip of her tongue between them. She was going to reverse what he had intended for her. As she moved down, she shushed him with a finger on his lips, hoping as she sucked on his heart nipple that he remembered when she had done this before, and that the memory would intensify his expectation. She moved up to look at his face again. A purplish bruise was rising under her love bite. She could remember when such brutality in her would have appalled her, but now she relished it, and as a counterpoint she kissed his eyelids. He loved that, the old softie. There, she thought, licking them slowly again, that’s for bringing me to Florence for my birthday. She nibbled at his earlobes, and slowly her tongue entered his ear. He gasped and she smiled. There you are, sir. That’s for putting me first in everything today. Scenes from the day passed through her like a deep pleasure, all the love sacrifices he had made for her, from waiting patiently while she stared at he knew not what, to choosing a wine that gave him heartburn, for her sake. Then she embarked on her slow journey down his body, pausing often to reward him deliciously for each gesture he had made.