Late 1990s/early 2000s: Eugene, from London, and Anne, from small-town France, meet in Rome. From the wild, and sometimes uncomfortable, nights they have, their paths cross a few times before they become attracted to each other. Before the course of true love can run like a jaunty Italian song, however, they have to get through the fact that they have pissed off the local gangsters, have blundered onto the identity of a child-murderer, and have to make their choices in the face of a morality that Eugene, at least, never knew he possessed. Below is Part One of the book, which is about 32 pages of one-and-a-half-spaced A4.
Anne told Eugene this: she was given a long red pencil when she was a child, brought from Florence by a tweedy uncle, calm cigar smoker. He later beat his wife’s lover to death with a frozen leg of lamb. Anne saw the pencil put in a drawer with shells, cones, feathers collected from a nearby beach.
Eugene dwelt on the word death, but said only, “So… genuine flotsam.”
The words made Anne look puzzled and mad for a second.
“But go on.”
Anne grew and reached the drawer, found the pencil among condoms, phials of insulin, undelivered letters with an angry fish franked onto them, a blackened metal fragment from a German gun. She knew the pencil was hers. She remembered a high church without ever seeing it, over a square black with ants that shimmered in her magic child’s eye: Firenze.
She often remembered a crowded conversation, or surely a series of conversations, about her uncle and love and death and Italy, and it always hit her that she did not at that time know what death really meant.
The pencil was topped with a dome guarding a swirl of snow in which, alone and shivering, stood Pinocchio. Anne was disturbed by the scene, yet felt glad that she wasn’t at the mercy of the elements, and had things to do other than stand and freeze. For a few days she was going to be Sister Anne, go in sandals through the snow and collect Pinocchio and all children like him and bring them in to soup and warm beds. There must have been a time when Anne thought her pencil was the only one like it in the world. She hadn’t seen rows of them in Florentine shops, or clutched in the hands of tourists, too late in life for it to work the magic of compassion on them.
For the magic to work, you had to live in the Pas de Calais village in which Anne had grown up, in a house built centuries before with walls a metre thick enclosing dim, damp rooms. Had to have a father who put on a dark, dank suit and drove to Saint Omer to work at the post office counter, a mother who got on her Solex and visited the region’s women to do their nails and listen to their woes and their equally depressing triumphs. With her parents all talked-out during their days, words were put to rest in their evenings. To appreciate the loneliness of Pinocchio, you had to have no brothers or sisters and be in between the ages of the other village kids, had to have no history of friendship by the time you went to the secondary school in Calais. You had to be the funny-looking kid, hair always skew-whiff, with an air of fragility, skin pale and freckled, and glasses hiding big round eyes. Anxiety brought Anne’s top teeth onto her lower lip, and never quite let them retract. A bully welcomed Anne to class with the words, “Everybody’ll hate you here.”
Was her life really going to be that way? No, she decided, or she should just get it over with, and walk out into the sea. “I didn’t do that,” she told Eugene, and waited for him to trap her eye and laugh. A hand twitched towards her bag to show him the pencil, then she remembered the night it disappeared, and the bruises that came out on her arms, and the way her body fluids betrayed her.
Eugene claimed Pinocchio wasn’t Florentine at all, or even Italian, but came from a suppressed story by the English children’s author Enid Blyton. Anne believed this until he told her the title, which was Noddy the Lying Little Fucker Gets His Comeuppance.
It was with Eugene that Anne went to Florence, a weekend to escape the badness and madness eating up the people around them in Rome. After a stroll around the centre, Anne pleased Eugene by declaring, “I’m underwhelmed.” Statues of saints, he noted, renowned for their ability to balance dinner plates on their heads; chubby cherubs needing their jaws wired for a month, Anne countered. Both mused on Michelangelo’s David’s remarkable under-endowment, then remembered that David had been a mere boy. Goliath might have had the biggest dick in the world, but it was no help when David floored him with a rock and cut off his head for him.
“We’re Romans.” Anne shone out the horrible wonder of it. Eugene, struck by an alarming eroticism in the way the words moved her mouth, stood on the bed naked, and did Caligula’s dance.
“We’re Romans,” he agreed. “Will stay in Rome, and live and die there.”
“Die there?” With the badness, and the madness, and the murder to which they could lead, she thought it a possibility.
“Not like Pinocchio, though. Anything’s better than dying like Pinocchio.”
“Of the cold?” Anne asked.
“Woodworm. The woodworm won’t get to us, Anne, will it?”
Anne Robichaux was sick in September when she was supposed to begin her Mediterranean History masters at Rome’s Sapienza University, and she reluctantly took her doctor’s advice not to go. She took up her old job at the local chemist, which demanded almost nothing of her except the stretching of her patience. The doc had nothing for that. She spent free time in bed, read history and studied Italian, no longer really sick but not well, either, brain and bones aching for the next phase of her life, the facades made by the Senate and People of Rome racing luminously past. She turned home one January morning on her way to work, packed, filled up her car and left for Rome.
When she studied English and read Tintin books in that frustrating language she promised herself she would one day have a small white dog called Snowy. That never happened, but a faithful white Renault Four was the next best thing. It looked proud to her as she parked it for a rest just across the Italian border. It looked almost big next to some of those toytown Italian cars, which of course had to have giant keys sticking out of their sides.
“Pride comes, then you fall,” she admonished Snowy. “You will make friends with the little Fiats of Rome.”
On her first wide awake Roman evening, in a dusty hotel in Testaccio, she called her only Roman friend, Chiara Pacitti. Anne made strings of words to remind Chiara of how they met on a summer school trip in England two years before. “I sent you a card.” She listened to the silence, saw the post office in Strasbourg, two days before, card in gloved hand, and into the slot. “To tell you that… I was coming.”
“Yeah.” A question in the word as it became three syllables.
Anne wondered what of a hundred things could be wrong.
“The girl I went to London with.” Chiara enunciated each word. Anne could have sworn she heard a coin clank through Chiara’s head.
Yes – of course – she had taken Anne to London from their base in awful awful Hastings – of course. They had stayed over – yes – Chiara credit-carding them swankily through shopping, the buying of ridiculous presents, and of underwear, champagne, a club, some ecstasy – oh yes – and a hotel. Of course! They had got into trouble about it – oh yes, of course they did – but not much.
Even as Anne joined in conjuring up that night of wild and fleeting friendship, Chiara was asking her if she needed an apartment. “Here? In Rome?” Anne thought she had misheard. Chiara did not wait for an answer, but was commanding Anne to meet her at via della Scrofa which, Anne saw from the map, was close to the historic city centre.
She elected, foolishly, to drive, and got sidetracked into alarming riverside one-ways, and led over bridges and back again. She was late, but at last stood outside the place, the blocks hostile and disapproving over her shoulder, a part of the city that frowned behind curtains. As instructed, Anne pushed the bell marked Dortona, heard a pained female voice answer, and told it, “I have come about the apartment.”
She was commanded to come all the way up, then buzzed into a dark entry. She pushed open an inner door, found a switch that threw light onto a hallway so narrow and tall it reminded her of a rock fissure, walked softly into it and emerged into a dimly-lit cavern to which she summoned the lift. She listened to its clank and wheeze and took impressions of air freshener and the suggestion of rubbish and then, quite sharply, the unmistakable stench of shit.
The feeling that she was being watched crashed down with the lift. She opened the gates into its housing, and entered a triangular cage just big enough for one person, with shopping, or two without. A block for singles, then, she decided; abandon companionship, she imagined inscribed, all ye who take this lift… It was only as she closed the gates that she noticed a door open opposite. A small girl was staring at her. She had a gold tooth that shone somewhat obscenely in her dark head. Anne got rid of the stare at the push of a button, and elevated herself.
A door was open on the fifth floor. Anne knocked, waited a long twenty seconds, then stepped inside. The entrance hall was full of sideboards on which rested dusty fruit and papers, a telephone on a slender-legged table, stale-perfumed coats on chairs, ugly metal and glass objects, and a painting, just leaning against a wall. She was just thinking, that can’t be a – what’s that his name was – de Chirico, when a wasted-looking woman appeared. Her lips looked like bruises.
“Dortona.” The woman’s offered hand felt to Anne like scrunched-up paper that had been in the fridge. She followed her host through a corridor that wound in a circle. In one room off it a radio played softly, while from the next a silence drowned it out. In another, a woman was stooped over a table, doing something meticulous with rags and metal. Another room suggested a kitchen, even with its door closed almost all the way. They emerged into a long salon so full of works of art that Anne took one blink at them and was confused: faces, sculpted and daubed, and figures, still or in motion, plus the cubes and arches of architecture. It looked like the basement of a museum, and something in that told Anne she really should not have been there.
Chiara Pacitti sat on a right-angled sofa under a curtained window at the semi-circular apex of the room, her chin resting on one hand. Anne waved. Chiara’s free hand stirred itself into an archaic Roman hail. The languid creature Anne remembered, Chiara was comfortably unthin, had thick black hair tied into a last-minute ponytail, blank, stark blue eyes, and deeply red vamp lips.
They made a three around a low table. Anne began what became a monologue about her circumstances by filling the stops she allowed for polite enquiry and yesses with her own uh-hmms, rather than let them stand empty. The other women stared. Speaking Italian, though, Anne congratulated herself, partly to cheer herself up. To Italians. Whoo! The Dortona woman picked up a phone and yelped into it, which seemed to bring her to some life.
“You’re English,” she told Anne. “I speak…” She searched for a word in the language she had chosen. “Good English.”
“Really.” Anne smiled, and side-eyed her smile towards Chiara.
“Not English? I speak French too.” The woman did not seem to want to pursue this claim, thankfully. “You’re from Paris,” Anne was informed.
“No. I’m – ”
“I love Paris.” There followed a recitation of a familiar catalogue of sights, plus charming hotels, shops and restaurants Anne had never heard of.
Anne wanted to interrupt to ask, “Will I be able to have a de Chirico in my room?” The imagined question reflected that she would never be able to afford whatever they would ask for a place in the block. She wondered when she could make excuses and leave.
“There’s a problem with the apartment.” Chiara gave their host the cheery reminder, which was enough to stop the Paris cliché slideshow. They were interrupted by the arrival of a decrepit, raspberry-lipped maid clinking in with coffee and pastries on a tray. Cups were clattered out, and coffee poured, before Anne was able to prompt Chiara with a stagey nod.
“They have to get them out first, the people I told you about.” Chiara seemed to think that waving her cake was explanation enough.
Anne wondered if Chiara’s cake was as stale as the one that, momentarily, gagged her and made her swill down a mouthful of coffee bitter as lemon juice, and almost as cold.
She said, “People?”
Their phone conversation, as far as Anne could remember, had been swallowed entirely by Anne reminding Chiara of who she was, Chiara’s interjection about the apartment, and then her directions to Scrofa.
“The people living there.” Chiara raised an eyebrow at the Dortona, who made an expression of dental misery. “They’ve got to get out before you can have the job.”
“Job.” Anne nodded the word out rather than puff it into the astonished question it wanted to be. And what is going on, she thought: Anne Robichaux creeps into Rome pathetically in need of a place to live and a job, and both are handed to her on her first eternal evening? Where is the jack in this box? “Okay,” she said. “Tell me about it.”
“Didn’t I tell you?”
The word set Chiara on the labour of thinking.
I spoke to you for perhaps three minutes on the phone, Anne wanted to remind her, and it was all didn’t-we-do-this and didn’t-we-do-that and what-fun-we-had and directions, and it was only a little over an hour ago. She could not think of a way to put it without sounding bad-tempered. She sipped cautiously at her coffee, showed teeth in an attempt at a smile, and looked up and caught Chiara putting on the lemon-sucking face Anne was avoiding.
“That silly bitch will tell you.” Chiara waved a finger towards their host’s vacant place on the sofa, making Anne, who had not heard the woman go, turn, startled. “Cleaning?” Chiara grimaced the word out. “Letting delivery people in?”
Caretaking, then, Anne gathered: she could do that. She imagined Chiara living in a block like this all her life and not knowing what the caretaker did. Batty old dames, she knew at once, the kind that lived among dust and priceless art, would make a simple job difficult, sometimes, but she would know how to deal with them. She could not help but see Chiara, forty years on, as batty and scatty as the absented Dortona woman. She asked, “When will they leave, these people?”
“I don’t know.” Chiara, pulled back from a look of distance. “Soon as she can get somebody to chuck them out, I suppose.”
Anne understood a whole world from the exchange. She remembered the child at the door downstairs, and the kid’s features filled in; long hair of dark plaited blond under a flowery garment – a sort of headscarf – dark skin, gold tooth: Gypsy, it all told her.
I will live there, she thought, on the ground floor, never a minute’s peace from the groaning lift. Not till I give it the bicycle oil and rag massage, anyway.
“You’ll need to clean it up.” Chiara’s expression was caught on tragedy for a second. “Gypsies,” she confirmed. “Can’t imagine what state they’ll leave it in.” She turned her nose up. “God.”
“So, listen, how have you been?” Anne felt it was time to say. “And what have you been doing?”
“Oh, good, good, you know.” Chiara became animated for a second. “Just got a BMW. Are you coming to this place tonight?”
“Place – what place?”
“Great place.” Chiara stood, and glanced at her watch. “Dance, have a laugh, you know. Are you up for that?”
“Well, yes,” Anne could not say anything else on the wave of a thought that continued the string: friend, job, apartment. And now, what, a great place to go. She grinned widely. “Certainly.”
“So tell the old trout you want the job.” Chiara picked her bag up, and slipped shoes on. “And let’s get out of here. It stinks.” She demonstrated with her nose.
True, Anne wanted to say. What the fuck. She settled for a symbolic hand waved under her nose, and said, “I’ll have to go back and change.” In her black skirt suit and flat shoes, in her only winter coat that she hated, she looked far too straight for a night out. She had put it on for the interview for the apartment. She had not expected the smell of shit, because nobody dressed up for that.
“You’re fine.” Chiara contradicted herself almost at once, saying, “You can borrow something of mine.”
“Really?” Anne thought Chiara had to be at least two sizes bigger, but confined the thought to a grin. “Okay.”
“Whatever, but let’s go before she gets totally out of it.”
The Dortona reappeared as if on Chiara’s cue. Her bird-like blink of bright release was a consequence, Anne realised, of the ingestion of an opiate of some kind. She pictured the face of a junkie she had seen once in the chemist in Wissant: in with his methadone scrip, he had chucked the pale green stuff down his throat and treated Anne to that same semi-glare, though within a minute he had looked even more depressed, if anything.
Anne spoke slowly to Ms Dortona – though she was surely a few-times Mrs – to confirm that she would take the job, and to check that the apartment did indeed come with it. The exchange of numbers and promises to call allowed them to step out into the hallway and to begin on its circular trail to the exit.
“How is your mother?” Chiara was asked, and that began a doorway conversation that rattled along. Anne didn’t care that she couldn’t follow it too well; give her a month, she thought – well, six – and she too would be rattling away, like a jaunty Italian song.
She stood by the lift, no longer listening, and thought, home – I’m home, this is home – really? She took a deep breath; unwise. And it smells of shit, but I know just the person who will be able to do something about that.
“Disgusting fucking… hag.” Chiara raised a gloved hand to her nose as they waited for the lift. “All my mother’s friends are like that.”
“Mm.” Anne put on a face that was nearly sympathetic. She changed the subject by observing, “This lift isn’t coming.”
“What?” Chiara displayed puzzled hurt.
“There’s no noise.” Anne pointed uselessly at the lack of noise. “We can walk down.” She thought she had better conjure up the solution before Chiara’s brain went into overload. She was also pretty sure that both of them would not have fitted into the cage.
Was Chiara as scatty and addled as this in Hastings, and London, Anne wondered. Probably. But oh well. You didn’t have a right to demand perfection from your friends. Not if they got you sorted with an apartment and a job and a bop on your first proper night in Rome.
“I’m so glad I called you.” An impulse made Anne reach out and hug Chiara, who responded warmly. “Thank you.” The two girls buried faces in each other’s collars, which at least served as a refuge from the astonishing smell.
Oh, oh, I want to be away from this. The thought shot through Anne’s head. How much of it could anybody take in one evening? She led Chiara down steps to the next floor, and saw that the landing there had two dog turds deposited in a corner, making further comment redundant. They hurried down the next flight.
“Do you know the Twenty One Club?” Chiara asked.
“No.” I got here a day and a half ago, Anne wanted to say, and slept for most of that. I don’t know anything or anybody in this city except you.
“We’re going there,” Chiara promised. She spread the conversation to a third party, trilling into her phone in a girlish excitement that Anne had not for a long time been either perpetrator or object of.
The bulb was broken or missing on the first floor. As they passed into the gloom of the landing a door flew open and a man tried to blocked their path. His eyes were black and his head shaved bald, and he wore dark suit trousers that came up high on him, and polished black brogues, topped incongruously with a shabby, greyed-out Harley Davidson teeshirt. Forty or so and, Anne felt, too little-boyish to be handsome. As Chiara swept imperiously past him, he cheesed out a smile and fell into step beside Anne. He was immediately in rapid conversation with her.
The lift cage door was open on his floor. Anne made a proprietary pause to close it. She understood from the stream of words that he was asking if he could use her phone; his had been cut off, and he had a very urgent call to make, and of course it went without saying that he would not be long.
“Certainly you can you use my phone.” Anne was pleased at having rendered this into such good, clear Italian that the man stopped as if unable to catch up with his own dazzling smile, and held out a hand. “It’s at my hotel, though,” she explained. “Fixed to a wall in the lobby.”
He looked heartsick and broken in the face of such a trick. Anne almost felt bad for jesting with him, and yet she felt she ought to add, in case he took her words as an invitation, “And you need to be a resident to use it.”
On the ground floor Chiara stopped her legs and her squeals, and was on the business of farewells to her friend at the other end of her call. She looked at the man, and raised a comic eyebrow at Anne.
With Chiara busy, and the man agitated and heartbroken, it seemed that only Anne noticed the door of the ground floor apartment opening. The girl she had seen on her way in was oblonged into the strip of space: now very obviously Gypsy. There was a message in her gaze, and Anne knew somehow that it was for her. She stepped forward to hear it.
The man spied the girl. He turned and extended a horned hand towards her, ring and pinkie fingers prominent, and hissed like a snake. The door clicked shut. Anne tried to think of a way to remonstrate with him. She stared at the door, frustrated, aware of some mystery behind it, and information lost for good. The man was talking to her shoulder.
He asked her name, and she told him.
“Anna,” he corrected. “Français, eh?”
“Française,” she corrected in turn. “So what’s your name?”
“My name?” He pondered. It looked like a difficult one.
Anne did not care what his name was. She wanted to suffix her unasked question – why did you frighten the girl away when she was just about to give me my message? – with his name, to make it sound more of an enquiry than a complaint.
“Good Lord.” He showed palms. “What would you like my name to be? Hey.” He addressed Chiara without a pause. “How about that phone?” He spun his tale of disconnection, and pulled notes out of a pocket. “I’ll pay you,” he insisted, even as Chiara shoved the phone at him with impatient shakes of her head. He took it, pressed a number in, and set off on a criss-cross constitutional up and down the hallway. He launched straight into a gesticulated disquisition.
“Maniac.” Chiara looked severe as she changed her focus and commanded, “Look at that fucking kid.”
The Gypsy girl had appeared again. She stared from Anne to Chiara, very obviously weighing each against the other. She was going to be thrown out, Anne remembered. Outside, it was as foreign for the Gypsies as it was for her, and it was cold. She saw her red pencil from Italy, the girl trapped in its snowed-in dome.
“Hey,” Anne said to her.
Chiara asked the kid what she was looking at. The girl only narrowed her eyes minutely in response. Anne thought it an efficient defiance.
“Big problem.” Chiara seemed to be speaking directly to the girl, though Anne gathered that it was aimed at her. “Big problem for us. Go home, back to where you came from.”
Do that, go home, Anne wanted to say, yes, or at least to a different place. There is danger for you here. Leave.
“Fucking man.” Chiara threw helpless hands out towards the man occupying her phone. His monologue had turned into the cooing sounds of a baby’s dadda. “Come on, please,” Chiara called. The man put a hand up. They shared a cacophony in the high-ceilinged hallway. Anne wished they would give it a rest.
In glancing at the man, Anne lost the girl, turned back and saw only the closed door.
She tried to think of her evening ahead, saw only that it would be good. That was where Chiara had come into her own, Anne remembered, in London, at the… Ministry of Sound? She was in the right place, then, with the right woman – it could not fail.
At last, the man finished his call. He sauntered down the hall towards them with a satisfied air. Smiling, he held Chiara’s phone out to her, and when she reached for it switched it quickly to his other hand. He made the delighted face of a pranking schoolboy. “Thanks.” He handed the phone back. “You’re charming.”
“I know it,” Chiara said.
“Where are you going, all dressed up?”
“I’m not dressed up. Yet.”
“Do you know the Buzz Bar?” The question made Chiara look as if somebody had farted in her face. “We could go there.” He put an arm around both Chiara’s and Anne’s shoulders. “The three of us. It’s a cool place.”
“Was,” Chiara could not resist.
“Very cool, really.” He turned to Anne. “Music, and drinks, and cool people.”
“I know what a bar is,” she told him.
“Busy, I’m afraid.” Chiara lifted his unresisting arm.
“Pity. You’re Ludovica’s daughter?”
“Certainly not.” Chiara was stung.
“Do you want to go out some other night, maybe?”
“I would very much seriously doubt it.”
Chiara stashed her phone in her bag, and looked more than ready to leave.
Somewhere above them, a door slammed shut.
“Listen.” The man was appealing to Anne. “The stars tell me that you will come and visit me.”
“Do they?” Anne could not help the smile she put on. “Well, they might just be having a laugh with you.”
“I hope not. Or you might as well just throw a glass bottle at my head.”
This heartfelt appeal got a look out of Chiara promising that, had she a bottle to hand, it could have been a distinct possibility.
“Hey.” The man put a hand up. He looked calm. He pointed. “That was my door.”
Fascinated, they watched him check his pockets: no keys. They saw this register in his face, a series of artist’s studies that culminated in the single unhelpful word fuck, until, driven by his predicament, he disappeared up the stairs. They turned to each other and giggled, hands on each other's shoulders. It was then that Anne knew they would be true friends again.
“Fucking man. Fucking Gypsies.” Chiara dismissed them all with a wave, and rooted in her bag. Car keys appeared in her hand. All her burdens seemed to lift as she caught sight of the magic capitals of the Bayerischer Motor Werken on her key ring, and she let a smile restore her face.
“Took the jacket back.” The words lent Piero Clemente’s story an air of conclusion. “And they credited my account, but not, you know, without a lot of hysterical homosexual high-fashion shit. He’s dead, the guy, I see him on the street. He will never curl his hair with tongs again, never again cut anybody dead with a witty remark. Fucking dead.”
His companions nodded, sent him heard-it-before looks; Piero’s world was peopled by the ghosts of all those he had metaphorically killed. The group of men was in a corner of Vincenti’s, a coffee bar near the centre that was remarkable for its lack of anything remarkable.
“Never chase the sausage down the little brown hole again.”
“They got friends,” Fabio Valente reminded him. “All those places, these days.”
“So?” Piero crunched him with a look. Handsome Fabio, he thought, as he often did, face too friendly, even with those scars. Tough guys hit Fabio first, because of that open face; bad mistake, of course, they found out. Handsome as fuck, though – was it healthy for Piero even to think that? He had no clue, sometimes, and then he did, and got the urge to reach out a metal hand to handsome Fabio, and obliterate him – babam! – because real men should just not be that handsome, should they? You’d kiss him first, though, a little voice queened at him… as it often did.
Fabio said, “Fashion places, lot of money.”
“Lot of tough guys in good threads, these days.” Fabio made a hand movement that said, well, look at us.
“It’s different these days,” Tommaso Quondam said. He had a way of looking at both men and women that silenced them; perhaps it was to do with his black, intelligent eyes. His jaw and brow too were commanding, those of a centurion who got to be senator knowing that when diplomacy failed there was always the option of dishing out a fucking good hiding. He went on, “Like Fabio said, lot of hard money coming into everywhere – any kind of business. Used to be Russians.”
He was not reminiscing. He was too young to remember the Russians coming – even pre-1989 – with their wads of dollars. There was the power of the man, however: there was an authority to what he said that made it seem as if he had made experience out of a mere instinct about something.
“Now it’s Yugoslavs, Albanians, all with accounts. And you know something?”
“Arabs.” Piero flicked the thought of them away with a hand. “Nigerians.”
“You know what?”
“A man with an account is much more dangerous. An old Russian lost his wad, he didn’t care. He got up and dusted himself off and went and nicked some more. Even if he lost his house, he went and blagged another – he was hungry for it. These guys with accounts? Those accounts their money rests in is just the last of a long line of accounts – it’s been on a journey. And they have advisers, stockbrokers, an army of accountants whispering down their mobiles every minute of the day to tell them just exactly how much they have to lose.”
“So you don’t fuck with them.” Fabio made it half-question half-statement.
“Not just for fun,” Tommaso sort of agreed. He cast a weary eye over Piero, who allowed the little group to lapse into silence. “No.”
A beast, Piero was a beast, Tommaso thought. What can you do with a beast? A beast doesn’t want to be fed, Fabio remembered from Jurassic Park: a beast wants to hunt.
“Yeah, well, fuck.” Piero perched on his stool, a beast agitated by the feeling engendered by the tourists outside the cage, safely out of his reach. “Shit. Listen.”
Tommaso and Fabio listened.
“Are we going to Twenty One tonight?”
Tommaso put on his centurion’s face. Only Fabio saw it.
“Going after the girl from Appia?” Piero leered.
“I don’t need to go after her.” Tommaso said it modestly enough. “Just got to stand still in Twenty One, and she’s there. But listen.”
“Those fashion clowns are there tonight, they’re dead – I’m serious.”
“We have a thing to do, first.”
Tommaso held a hand up for silence, and cast an eye over the bar. He called the waitress away from a conversation with a designer-labelled banker type with a pubic perm. He ordered coffees for those present, and one more for the timely arrival of leather-coated Jojo Mercurio. Bald and yet long-haired; his eyes swam in heroin. Taking his work too seriously, Tommaso decided. Certainly taking it home with him, anyway.
He asked Jojo, “It’s set?”
“Sorted.” Jojo sank down, whooshed air out of his nostrils, let loose his coat to give off sweet and sour. He regarded his colleagues unsmilingly. He annoyed Tommaso by pulling out cigarettes. He lit up, and sent Tommaso a brief look through the smoke that was part-apology and part-challenge. “Meeting at top of Scrofa with Massimo and them, nine thirty.”
“What’s going on?” Piero’s face shone. One day when he was ten he had felt a similar excitement in the middle of a playground fight. The feeling had never quite left him. His face had hardened like marble, and had never quite gained enough flesh to change back.
“Gypsies.” Tommaso caught sight of a slight imperfection on one of his fingernails. He held it up to the light and examined it.
“Gypsies?” Piero nodded. “Beautiful.”
“I hate those fuckers.” Fabio shook his handsome head sadly.
“Specifically, the ones in the apartment on Scrofa.” Tommaso said it before Piero worked it out. He dared Piero to say, didn’t I tell you not to let them in there? Just the same, he paused to allow Piero to crow, then said, “They’re leaving.”
“Beautiful.” Piero made the word sound like an oath. Beautiful, he thought, because there was no comeback; a copper plods along, says, “What’s going on?” and you say the magic word, Gypsies, and the copper walks on, cursing his uniform, because if not for that he would be in there taking a pop at the Gypsies too. Beautiful, too, because those nightmare human flotsam had to be shown that you didn’t just crawl out of the hellhole you made and then float up to Italy to make another one. They would go back home and tell their friends, don’t go to Italy – it’s dangerous.
“I had a rethink about them.” Tommaso acknowledged Piero’s imagined snark. “Travelling people, I concluded, ought to travel.” He drained his coffee, and stood up, said, “And tonight, we’re going to help them do that very thing.”
Before he put the old Volvo in gear, Eugene Mackie shoved a tape into the stereo, Renata Scotto singing Glück, Handel, Mozart, Rossini. Question he put to himself: why does every opera compilation, whether by one diva or a mixed salad, always feature Rossini, bloody Mozart, freaking Handel and fucking Glück? He did not actually care. He knew his opera as well as he knew Patagonia, but there was certainly something in it of a glorious noise. Next month it might be Bach, or Boccherini, or somebody else foreign with a name beginning with b, but for now it was the glorious racket of the opera that rocked the enclosed little world he had chosen.
Gently in gear, a glance in the mirror. He could not make out a thing, but one bonus about driving in Rome was pedestrians knowing they were in mortal danger once they put a toe near the road, and doing the looking for you. All Romans together, he thought, sharing in the contract to live on or die under wheels. He set off into the traffic on the via Sarzana.
He rummaged in the glove compartment and was shocked to find a pair of gloves. Was that a – you know – post-modern joke? Tan leather and machine-knitted wool, outrageous in their own little old money way. Maps: Lazio, Tirreno, Adriatico, Abruzzo, as long as a place ended with an o, flyers from takeaway joints folded into them. Cigarettes, the pack started. Some coins. It was a Roman fucking ruin of a car, but he was familiar with them, and felt at home in them. It was only the older ones that opened easily and started with Eugene’s key, and then the engine sometimes had to be coaxed and jiggled into life, but mostly they let out an eager purr, first time. There was also the advantage that older cars could be hotwired, though he did not like to do that. It was not the instant hack they showed in films, but an attention-grabbing sight that necessitated a drill and, down the road a bit, a repair bill – not fair, really.
As the engine griped to a halt at lights he was just about to say this to the blond Gypsy child holding a card up at his window when he discovered a Paul McCartney. He addressed her with the words, “Now, Miss, what would you do to somebody who owned one of these pernicious Beatle gewgaws?” Magic child eyes looked into his briefly and coolly, and gave him the creeps, but then she was gone. So was Paul McCartney, out the window and no existence further than a plastic clatter. Eros Ramazotti suffered the same fate, sort of on principle. So did Hits from the Sixties. Why would Italians want to listen to all that gloomy shit from our sixties, Eugene thought, when they had the coolest sixties themselves, all that Sophia Loren and Gina Lollapalooza? We took all that from them, all those decades of style, glamour at fountains, scooters, sunglasses, loafers, and… cappuccinos, and said, “Hey, we really appreciate that, so in return here’s Cliff Fucking Richard.”
There was no… reason in the nineties, though, he remembered, and, as happened each time he remembered, he felt pained, just a little, and ashamed of his generation – just a little. No reason at all, for anything at all; no reason to love something, no reason to hate it. Reason exited stage left pursued by a whole fucking pack of sabre-toothed bears in the eighties, when the working classes decided to sell their worn-out souls to your Thatchers and Reagans. Once whole nations started kidding themselves then that was The End, A Movie Come True, soundtrack by Paul McCartney.
“I hate Paul McCartney,” he was always having to explain to people, “because he earns forty quid a second without even getting out of bed. It will sit in a bank forever, and the mice will eat half of it and he’ll never notice. He’ll die and decay, and his mop top children, and their moppettes, they’ll be bones and dust, and the money will still be there, unspent.” People said so what? Eugene’s reply was usually, “Why the fuck doesn’t he bung a million my way?”
He did not want a million. What he really felt was that Paul McCartney with his all money could solve the food problem in all of Africa, the water problem, the disease problem, the African problem problem. Or wherever. He did not say it because nineties people said it all the time; they didn’t actually give a toss, just liked the warm glow that spread through them as they said it. They still means-tested beggars on London streets to establish details of their actual income before handing over fifty pee or a proportion thereof. That was the nineties for Eugene: saying the right thing, preferably in the company of people who would not dare contradict you because they were equally shallow.
Paul, he had to remind himself, would have been an absolute genius if he had only written Yesterday. But to Eugene that meant that the mould-busting pop virtuoso had a duty to outshine it, following the greatest song ever written with the greatest philanthropic coup ever dealt.
He found Phil Collins, lifted him up, pleased as a hunter with the carcass of a village-terrorising tiger, the thing looking just as wretched. He told the box, “Might be another day for you in Paradise, Phil, but, you know, I got to get on with shit. Just think about it.” Out the window went Phil. Okay, so that was Paul, Phil and Eros gone, plus an entire decade of dross, which made four tapes Eugene owed. He reached into his pocket and drew out cassettes and paid up, stuffed everything else back in and shut the glove compartment.
Onto the via Appia Nuova. He nearly got narked at an oldish couple in a Punto, when the driver looked and checked before groaning into the mile-wide gap Eugene was leaving for him. “Passed your test in a horse and cart.” Eugene was about to wind the window down and share this with the man, then left it; it was only the road. The road was a place for human frailty. In fact, it was the perfect place for it.
On the streets of his native White City, the twelve year-old Eugene had charmed his way into an outwardly unforgiving clique of older boys. One night, near Shepherd’s Bush, they had turned up in a newish Audi. Once they were in the relative safety of the dark lanes of the countryside west of London, they had been sceptical at the idea of Eugene taking a turn at the wheel, but he had simply suggested, huh, if they were scared… well… then… and that was nearly all it took. They pulled up by a dusty square in front of a nursery and he had been made to show them what he could do. And once under way, yes, it was just like the clunky computer simulations – more or less – and the demonstration – hardly a lesson – he had conned his oldest brother Aidan into giving him the year before, and yes, he had been a natural, and yes, he had nearly killed them all doing eighty on a bend with third gear screaming because he had forgotten how to do fourth, and shaving eleven inches off a hedge and leaving paintwork on a tree, but nearly was not the end, ever. Before the end, there was speed, and exhilaration, adrenaline and all the lights in his head glowing into overdrive.
There was also the astonishing tedium of officialdom. Eugene’s teenage years had been punctuated by probation and community service for the indiscriminate nicking of cars. Into the bargain, the fun had gone with maturity, he always told himself as he sat gridlocked at London lights in his own mediocre ride; it had only been the nicking of cars, and the reasoning that he might as well be hung for a whole slab of kebab with all the trimmings as for a small döner that had allowed him to speed around faster than sound.
Rome brought it all back to him. They were mad, there – fucking mad, lived on some kind of Roman death wish. That was his kind of driving, but he sometimes remembered that you could be killed if you really fancied yourself at the speed of sound; too old, synapses alive to failure, movements slo-mo compared to those of a perky, stroppy adolescent. Even the outskirts of Rome only got a sedate seventy miles per hour out of him, converted impressively to the new money of KM per hour.
He got off the main road and made his way into Testaccio through narrow streets choked with parked motors. Snooty blocks looked down on him, though he knew their paint jobs only hid the fact that they were falling to the Roman speciality of splendid ruin. Gardens were full of rusting furniture and decaying grannies forgotten when the first autumn rain scattered the last alfresco dinner. Lit-up windows, Friday night, food, wine. Kids in bedrooms up there, undergoing the self-inquisitions and peer-examinations of adolescence; kids snorting stuff, having sex that puzzled them, staring at tellies and computer monitors on which their lives, they half-suspected, were already being played out. Reality was never so virtual as the lives of middle class kids, Eugene thought, and wanted to call it out: public information broadcast for an extremely fat fee paid by your clueless parents. I thang yew.
“Forward,” he commanded the car sternly. To la Scotto he said, “Shut up,” and she obliged, and let the orchestra take it out along the last few bars of Puccini’s Una Voce Poco Fa from… whatever it was from. He stabbed her in the button and put the tape in his pocket. Outside the block numbered seventy seven he coaxed the engine, venerable but temperamental old thing, back into silence. He played some experimental music on the horn, and got out.
There was a group of sixteen-or-seventeen year-old girls in the road. He noted hair tied back tightly, pores you could have a game of football in. Adolescence, he wanted to point out triumphantly, but instead pointed to himself, saying, “English gentleman of some forgotten school.” This got a giggle from a girl with blond hair, kind of messy but – you know – spent hours on it messy.
“Who are you?” Messy hair was trying to look vampish. Opened her mouth, showed braces. Christ. She looked like a drooling child.
“I just told you.”
He leaned in the car window, and played his horn music again. It took a less than a minute to draw a figure out of number seventy seven; for a moment it was dark and unknowable, and could have been a ghost. Then it made its way through the drive, emerged as Latino America in the fifties; white teeshirt, Levis, sneakers, they called them then. Another moment showed a sleek young Elvis with goosebumps, captured in burglar lights.
“Olly,” Eugene called, and heard a voice call a version of his name in reply. “Into your top hat and your tails, man, and let’s swap seventy seven for Twenty One, huh?”
Eugene had met the rather grandly named Oliviero De Angelis by a quirk of fate engendered by big cities and the auras and fields in them that whirlpooled strangers together. Aided by a mad whim, he had decided, rather foolishly, to implant himself into the city two months before starting his history MA at the Sap. He was sat outside a fancy café on the via dei Baulari during his first Roman summer, making an espresso last as long as he dared, when a guy put a hand on his shoulder and said into his ear, “So where does a twenty-something cool man go to have fun in this town?”
It was a guy with whom Eugene had studied, and played rugby, in Loughborough, name of Mosh. In the usual way of post-university drift, they had not seen each other for a few years. Mosh was doing Italy, and knew Olly, somehow, so the three of them hung out for a few days. With Mosh gone, Olly of the Angels remained.
“I never liked that fucker much,” Eugene confessed. “But he was alright, this last couple of days.”
Mosh had been a twat at Loughborough. One of those people who pissed you off out of a natural jealousy or vindictiveness, and finally simply because you made it clear you were never going to be a friend; you’d hang out with them because of those circumstances of enforced spaces and friends in common. Mosh had thrived on conflict in a group, just so that he could choose a side that went with whatever way his mind happened to be pulling him. More than once, Eugene had said to him, “Maybe you’re not a twat, but you certainly act like one very very often.” Then Mosh would apologise, and say, “I value your friendship.” Who would say that? Once, when drunk, he confided to Eugene that he only ever apologised to stop the row of people he had annoyed, never because he felt sorry. An odd quality to boast about. “What, never?” Eugene had checked. It was a challenge: he had kept it in mind to make Mosh sorry he had told him that, and to boot him to a distance.
“He’s cool.” Olly had agreed cautiously, and then he and Eugene had turned to each other and laughed. “We smoked a lot of shit, you know?”
“Mm-hm.” Eugene fixed Olly in a gaze that said, I was there, you fool. He said, “Listen. Smoking shit doesn’t make everybody cool.”
“Not even us?”
“Well, yeah.” Eugene considered his reply. “Makes us cool. But not everybody. Not that fucking… twat.”
“Okay.” This was one of Olly’s utterances that implied belief and obedience, said one way, or wisdom, or authority, said another. He was reaching into the labyrinthine pockets of his jacket. “Skin up now, or later?”
“Now is usually a good time.” Eugene thought of the road, and its error-makers, and the speed and noise of sound and flying metal. “We might be dead later.”
He could never put a finger on what exactly made the vibe he got from Olly. He didn’t have to. “He comes on like a bit of a… moron – no other word,” he would say to Anne, a long time later. “But honestly, he’s like one of those films that takes twenty minutes to get going. Then you’re sort of… gripped.”
Eugene’s lack of shyness and his facility with Italian had allowed him to meet a lot of people in Rome. Possibly the worst thing about the student thing he was doing – and nothing had prepared him for this, startlingly obvious though it should have been – was that he had done it before, so his fellow-students held little interest for him. He had gone to Rome determined to avoid its Brits and the castes they set up; class system in tatters at home, he was fond of saying, they relocate abroad to set up another. Americans seemed no better. No, if you wanted to do the Italian job, you did it with Italians. Before he lived in Italy he thought Italians would be, among other things, of course: noisy, vulgar, over-expressive, neurotic, vain, obsessed by trivia and unaware of the world outside their country. He found them to be engaging, quiet, articulate, reserved, and very aware of their place in the world. They were indeed a bit vain, a quality of which he discreetly approved. They were not as well-dressed as he had been led to believe, and even in Milan you could do a summer evening walk and see entire families dressed like Beavis and Butthead. They were funny, though – an amazing quality – irreverent, and tolerant. He understood at last where all those jokes about Italian soldiers running away from battles came from: they genuinely couldn’t be arsed to fight wars conjured up for them by uniformed buffoons and despots. Perhaps the only thing that annoyed Eugene about Italy was its tendency to do things tomorrow, which, coupled with his own very same habit, made its north European bureaucracy all the more disagreeable.
Olly lived in a sprawling block in Testaccio, in theory in his mum’s basement, though in fact she had shrunk her life into two rooms, and his part of the apartment was separate from hers. He had a blue-black quiff, blue-black eyes, wore blue-black shirts and jeans, had olive skin, white teeth that shone in the dark, and a classic Roman nose: Olly was a design-classic Roman.
Olly had started studying economics at the Sapienza, got pissed off with that and shifted to Milan to almost-finish his degree. Having got pissed off with Milan, he got a job in some bank in Rome and then, pissed off with banking, got a job that had something to do with the stock exchange. Pissed off thoroughly at always having to handle vast sums of money that would never belong to him, he gave that up. His only talent, he admitted, was a nose for things that were old but good. On the face of it, they were useless too, except to people who did photo and film-shoots in, mostly, advertising. He became a creative, supplying stuff that was enhanced by being held or stretched out on by models, who in turn sold arguably useless things to people with more money than taste who, arguably, didn’t want or need them.
In his garage he had a midget Fiat and a Lambretta from the fifties, both blue-black. He’d had a blue-black Cadillac Coupe de Ville for a while but, as was his nature, lent it to a guy who promised to treat it like a queen but turned out to be a republican, and ran it over a cliff into the sea off Liguria. In one of Olly’s three huge rooms towered a La Germania fridge – the Lager Mania, as Eugene called it – in which he kept only beer and white wine he rarely drank. A nineteen-thirties prototype Pinarello bicycle never left its hook on a wall. In a frame was displayed a pink cycling jersey, stained and moth-eaten, but signed, won in the fifties by Fausto Coppi, the Italian cycling champion of all champions, as he blazed a scary way through the Tour of Italy. Olly’s weights bore some similarly obscure sporting pedigree, which may have been one reason why he rarely dared to lift them. He had seventeen pairs of Levis of various shades, all of various vintages. He had a leather bomber jacket whose provenance was suggested by the map of the Mekong Delta embroidered on its back, and another in tatters, the Cinecitta wardrobe prop worn by Anthony Quinn in the Fellini film La Strada. There was an f-hole arch top guitar on which he could only play the chords of C and E, made in Germany in the thirties, presumably before jazz was declared decadent. An old valve radio looked snootily down on his CD player as if to say, if you look like me you don’t have to fucking work. There were moulded metal knick-knacks advertising Amilcar, Bugatti, Moto Guzzi, Lamborghini, Ferrari, and on the wall an original cloth-backed poster for the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, and a metal plate that once hung outside the Folies Bergère to announce that a siren called Mistinguett would soon be crooning there.
He was still trying in vain to practise his dreadful English before Eugene cured him of it, so, on Eugene’s first visit there he asked, “You like?”
“Never seen so much fucking junk in my life.”
Whatever it meant to Olly, a contented smile had spread over his face.
The rooms would grow on Eugene, despite his taste for what in the seventies was called minimal, in the eighties austere and, when the weekend supplements ran out of serious adjectives in the ironic nineties, bankrupt. Flea-market, Eugene was happy to call it. He would come to regard visits to Olly’s like those to a museum, got to enjoy picking the exhibits up, getting their history, and having a laugh at them.
“We should drink something,” Olly told him.
That was on that first visit, when they established that they had forgotten all about Mosh. Eugene had the fridge door open, and was looking at its contents, impressed. “What are you doing?” he quipped. “Opening a fucking bar?”
They drank. What did he want to do, Olly asked. “You are my guest,” he said, haltingly.
“Fuck that. What we should do,” Eugene raced into his Italian, “is go and hit this town without that ponderous fucking… Saxon in tow.”
“Cool. We’ll do it. Tonight is Thursday.” Olly made the declaration sound like that of a national holiday. “Cool night at this place called Bettina’s. You know it?”
“Yeah.” Eugene had never heard of it.
“Wall-to-wall rich girls out to see the world.”
“You’re a good guide, eh, to the world?”
“I manage, man.” Olly looked at Eugene sharply, caught his new friend’s eye and, though neither of them knew it right then, captured it forever, clanged his bottle on Eugene’s. He cast a hand towards the window, and the lights shone by the SPQR, the Senate and People of Rome. “Hey, well, look at it, huh, all tiny, and out there. Come on.” He drank up. “Let’s go to it.”
Vittorio Gattucio got out of bed, and went and stood over the loo. He had his first coherent thought for the day: it was awkward to piss with one arm out of action – it was always going to be awkward to piss with one arm out of action. “Plaster off on Monday,” he reminded his reflection. Last visit to that foul hospital; nurses, man, like Sylvester Stallone, except that one he saw first time – total babe, then what did she do but do the dirty on him, and told the law he was a Saturday night fighter.
“So tell me again how you broke your arm, Vito.” The stupid Saturday night hospital cop’s bedside manner left a lot to be desired. “Fell off your scooter?” He sniggered. He told Vito, “Sergeant Ferraro – remember him? – will laugh too when I tell him.”
“Will he?” Vito widened his eyes. “Well, when he does, tell him I fucked his wife. That would make anybody laugh.”
“Only thing fucked tonight is your arm.” Both men let that sink in. “So it seems to me. Well, okay, you fell. I believe you. But tell me, what were you doing when you fell?”
None of that mattered. Vito knew just one terrible thing as he sat in the hospital: each little span of attention paid to his arm, by doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, friends – enemies – whoever, would deepen the cutting humiliation of it.
The apartment was a mess. “You’re at home,” Hortensia said to him. “I got to look after the kid, take him to my sister. Got to bring him back, and come home late. Got to cook the fucking dinner and all. Squeeze in a day’s work, too. You tidy up the place.”
“Only got one arm working.”
“So do it slowly.”
He went to the kitchen and got the coffee machine on. He thought about that plaster, and inside it the fusion of the bones at his elbow, but also the withering of his muscle, the hiding and the fading of his tattoo. “Might be weak for a long time,” a doctor had told him, and had looked sharply at him. “I mean months.” That sank in again, every day, and once again he could not quite believe it.
What he never told any cop was that he was on the spot just of Agonale, the usual midnight gig in tourist town: people in flux, in and out of restaurants, clubs, hotels, stations, cars. He spotted a guy with a little knapsack, carrying it by the loop at the top; basically had it written on his back: I’m a tourist – go on, just ride up on your scooter and relieve me of this bag.
Universal bag, always with some of the following: passport, camera, camcorder, sometimes, tapes, Walkman or CD player, batteries, guidebook, notebook, pens, address book, personal organiser, mobiles, palmtops, a laptop, twice, disks, money, traveller’s cheques, credit cards, train tickets, postcards, stamps, jewellery, souvenir shit. It was obvious which got discarded, but of course there was always a curve to learn on. Vito did not know how many snazzy Montblanc pens he had tossed, how many tickets he had failed to flog to scumbag backpackers, and the same with the guidebooks. Now he never had to buy a stamp, nor a notebook. Not that he ever used either, but the boy, when he went to school, well then – and a pen he would have, one that would make all the other kids green. Why did people carry all this stuff around Rome – around Italy – with them? For the love of Jesus, did they ever really stop in night-time Rome to use a laptop? And if they were intelligent enough to read and write and manipulate electronic gadgetry, did they never take any notice of what it said in those guidebooks about never keeping all this shit in one place, and that place a bag, detachable, cuttable, nickable? Vito regarded the conundrum as an opportunity.
So this guy in the Piazza Navona – there he was, striding as if he owned the place, eyes full of its lights and wonders. Livia asked him the time, and while thanking him nodded her head vigorously, and confirmed him as a tourist. Vito was on the back of the scooter to do the graft. Ugo, who was driving, shook his head as he often did, like to say how sad humanity was when it carried a knapsack that way, and called back, “Good one.” For Vito, as usual, it was like somebody had pressed a switch on his back. He watched the bag.
It was only Livia who got a look at the guy: not exceptionally tall, nor short, hair no colour at all, or light, maybe, but not blond, short at back and sides, and light-coloured eyes, grey, Livia was certain when she recalled him, a deadened, pale and terrible grey that had an arresting lifelessness to it. The guy was vague, she thought, distracted, maybe, but not drunk. Linen jacket, belted and pleated back, a gleaming white shirt. She asked where he was from, and he said, “Vladivostok.”
Vito had watched the bag.
“Front or back?” Ugo called.
The guy was strolling, attention diverted by all that went on around him, the well-turned-out couples and the scummy Gypsy children, the bongo-playing middle-class hippy teens and the siren girls of the eternal city, the whole Rome experience. Well, he was about to have another one.
“Front. Let’s roll.”
The engine obliged with its lynx’s purr, and they were moving gently. They approached politely but steadily, then were upon him. Vito’s hand was out and open, poised to work a graceful way through the remarkable number of complex movements to do the necessary with the obvious, when all at once a Gypsy child stepped into view, and she had a hand out, too, a card held in it. Ugo swerved only slightly to avoid her. She was alerted by the noise – a thing out of place – unlike the tourist. She stepped back a little, turned, caught both Ugo and Vito in an unflinching, curious blue gaze, and opened her mouth a little – a gold tooth sending out a fleeting gleam. The guy was going to give her some money, maybe, and switched the bag to his other hand.
Ugo had not stopped, but had slowed just a little too much to be effective. Vito’s hand closed only on another hand, empty, and they clasped for a second. All Vito knew next was a sensation of imbalance as that hand gripped and wrenched at his own, briefly but tightly just as Ugo accelerated. There was a dizzying whorl of lights in Vito’s eyes, one leg in the air; it bounced once on the back of the machine, then followed the rest of him, down to the ancient ground.
Force and motion combined to break Vito’s arm, and he knew it before he hit the deck, and cursed. Ugo too cursed briefly in the background before doing the only thing possible: sticking to Plan A and getting the hell out. A crowd gathered. Livia’s was one of its faces, white and anxious, going, “What happened?”
Just the briefest glimpse of those pale eyes, stony and cold and unmoved – no triumph in them, even. Then the guy was gone, passed on, out of Vito’s view as he busied himself with this new sensation: the warm, dirty stones, the concerned faces, the lights blurring into his eyes, and that sound, a low moan, an animal in distress, his own sound.
Two months more or less without the use of his arm. His place in the team taken by creeps out to make a name. Two months and, well, hardly starvation, but taking it easy. Playing cards, lighting a cigarette – for the love of Christ – tasks for Hercules all of a sudden, never mind the snatching of tourists’ bags.
One glimmer that transfixed Vito, however, was that of revenge. Livia had spotted the man from Vladivostok again, just sitting on a bus at a set of lights on the embankment. “It was him,” she asserted. “Or his double.” She had been on foot, and no bus stop in reach, so was unable to follow him. Vito pictured him, the memory oddly clear sometimes, strangely fuzzed at others, but each time ending in hitting the cobbles again in the Piazza Navona, the air knocked out of him, hitting it again, and again. He looked at the bouquet of kitchen knives on its magnetic board. Vito had needed a doctor, but Boris from Vladivostok, when Vito was finished with him, he was going to need a plastic fucking surgeon.
She was a magic child. She breathed magic and scattered it gently behind her. Dzemila Djemjanja knew the streets by the shops and the churches and the blocks, and by the way the cars were herded through them like sheep by the signs and the lights. She knew them by the characters who populated them and the fancy clothes they wore, out in the morning, home at night, or there all day behind winter shades, then out strolling for shopping or the constitution, walking dogs.
She spotted a newspaper at her feet, and picked it up. “Your brother Niko likes to read the newspapers,” she had been told. “Bring them.” There was a sneer. Likes to read the newspapers, when other people are out grafting. It was said, but not meant. Sometimes it was meant, but not said: people in families were allowed to hold such opinions.
Niko was not her brother, nor Niko’s brother Zete – and their brother Ari wasn’t even their brother.
Her sister Kara was at the other end of the road. They called her the whore. Dzemila was not exactly sure why. One man Kara brought back once shot a pistol, drunk, fooling, and the police came, and the man and Kara had to leave, though Kara came back. Her brother Zete said he would get the man and, it was said, he did, though the man was of the people, like them, but Skopje scum, not like them.
Kara made a come-here gesture at her. Dzemila would go nowhere at the impatient finger of Kara the whore – and she was definitely not her sister: Dzemila knew that much. Kara could waggle that finger all she liked. Before Kara could totter her comic, overfed way on her heels, Dzemila bent her head and turned the corner.
Out of all of them, Dzemila alone knew that having Ari in the apartment at via della Scrofa would be trouble. “He’s our brother,” the men said, when they discussed it. Ari had other brothers though, and they all stayed, for a day, three days, a week, slept on the floor and belched, snored and farted their way through the nights. “They’re not our brothers,” Dzemila pointed out, but they only looked at her and, when she said it again, Marika, her other sister, clipped her ear. Ari and his friends kept things in the apartment: two hundred pairs of training shoes, which came to four hundred shoes, Dzemila worked out: a lot of shoes. A hundred and fifty pairs of jeans, which made... loads of jeans. Thousands of cassette tapes. Bags they were told not to open, though Dzemila did, peeked in and saw boxes of perfume. Laughing, Ari called it peedashat. Kara sloshed it all over herself before she went out, rolls of fat escaping from the confines of her black bra. Disgusting.
It was not a big apartment. From that fact alone Dzemila knew their days there were doomed, because you could not fill such a small space with so many people who brought so many things, and who brought more people, who brought yet more things, not in a part of the city like the via della Scrofa. Dzemila liked it when she was first brought there. She lived with Marika, who did her caretaking job, and Dzemila helped her, and that was that.
Kara came first, with a man who said he was their uncle, Stefan Simanski. Kara would stay for a week, he told Marika, passing money. He bent and pinched Dzemila’s cheeks. He had kindly brown eyes. On his chubby red fingers he wore rings highlighting his dirty nails. He sported shoes that were blue and white, a black suit and a white shirt open to his spread-out waist. He had a hairy chest crossed with gold.
At the table, he wiped his chops and told them about when the Chetniks came and tore down his photo of Tito. Other things had happened, but that was the worst. “Do you know why?” he quizzed Dzemila. Tito gone, he explained, that was the law, gone, and it was only then that the people, who scorned the law, saw why they sometimes had to put up with it.
“Who is Tito?” Dzemila asked, and they all laughed.
Stefan claimed to have brought Zete from Banja Luka in his car, though later it seemed clear that Zete came lying under things in a lorry. In any case, it was Zete who brought Niko, and Niko who brought Ari, and Ari who brought the other guys, who all, first time in the house, sat at that table and shovelled food into their faces and sat there and expelled the gas of their appreciation.
Dzemila knew this gas would accumulate in pockets in the apartment and become explosive and, when the people in the building asked Marika to leave, was not surprised. Marika was reminded of the people’s proud tradition, Niko telling her that they did not beg from these bourgeoisies. What is it I’m sent out to do each day, then, Dzemila wanted to ask. She sensed a boxed ear in their mood, and did not dare.
Marika came in white-faced one afternoon and told Zete that it had been decided: they had to go, no reasoning with that bloody woman upstairs. Zete said he would sort it out. He went up bearing gifts in a carrier bag: food, a bottle of something, that fake perfume from Ari’s friends’ bags. Dzemila realised then that Zete was as stupid as the rest of them, because these types, they did not buy fake brandy, but the stuff she saw in the shop windows at fifty thousand lire a bottle, and the perfume that evaporated off their rancid skins alone cost a week of what Ari made. They ate their own food, and were very particular about it, too. With wise Zete lost to stupidity, Dzemila knew they were all lost. She followed, kept one floor down, and listened. There was a row, and Dzemila heard the tinkling of glass, which meant trouble. Marika went out a second later with the broom and pan, mop and bucket. She made it very plain that she did not want Dzemila’s help when she shouted it into her face.
Dzemila knew that once trouble started, it drew in everybody, people inside, people outside, people on the periphery, and burned them up. Just like in Bosnia.
It was the people outside she was most worried about. The old scrag-bag on the fifth, now she obviously was not going to come and shoo them out with her witch’s broomstick. Dzemila watched for outsiders. She discounted the parade of people the fool on the first brought in; he was almost worse than Ari and Kara, and asked anybody into his apartment, with the difference of course that it was indeed his apartment.
Dzemila knew the man in leather with the big nose and the bald head and the long ponytail at the back was a bringer of trouble. She stalked the lift up, heard the doors shaken open at the fifth, and heard him let in. She watched him leave a half-hour later. He paused outside her door, looked at her through the crack with soulful eyes and gave her an undertaker’s smile. He said a child’s byee-byee that promised he would be back. She told Marika, who told Zete, who told Niko, who told Ari, who rolled over on his bed of bags and groaned. Zete said, “We’ll tell Stefan,” and went out.
What could their bluff uncle do, though? Back home he was a big man, Dzemila understood – and she believed it, of course – but she understood too that just one platoon of Chetniks said otherwise. She closed her eyes and saw one pause, grab the picture of whatsisname, Tito, tear it down the middle, add it to the petrol-soaked pile on the floor. Rome was full of Chetniks, when it came down to it, and even Arkan the baby-faced killer ate in its restaurants.
“We should have gone to Naples,” Ari lamented. “We had the chance, but what did we do?”
Dzemila asked, “Where is Naples?”
Marika said, “I wish you had gone to Naples. Things were good here till you arrived with your friends and your rubbish, with your whore sister and her bad habits.”
Ari said that if he were on his feet he would let her feel the back of his hand, but he could just not be bothered.
“Did my job,” Marika said. “Lived my life, fed the child. People smiled at me.”
“You count the smiles of these gadje more than family?” That had got Ari up. “Is that what it comes to?”
“Yes.” Marika was shouting. “Yes it does.” Ari was coming at her slowly across the room.
Dzemila waved magic signs, and said, “The man with the ponytail, he’s coming, he’s coming,” meaning, there will be enough trouble for us ahead. Her spell worked. Ari calmed down, and Marika too.
“We have to leave.” With Marika greeting that with a slow handclap, Ari went and did an inventory of the stuff in the other room. He spent a long time speaking urgently into his mobile. Men arrived in cars, banged noisily on the door and shouted greetings, making Marika screw her face up in pain. Came in, wanted traditional hospitality, could not see the situation because they were optimists and fools. Marika stamped her foot, acted as though they were not there, and told Ari to tell them to take their shit and take themselves out of her life. There was a tradition of strong women among the people, they knew; they had heard the legends of women of the past who had taken some severe taming. Awed, the men said nothing, did not even dare make the faces they wanted to at Ari.
Dzemila read the pattern, then. The old bat’s demand from the fifth floor, then the visit of the pony-tailed man. Two days later, the girls. She had seen the chubby one before, but the thinner, shabbier one, she was a different type. Not one of these vain, rich Romans; she was going to take Marika’s job, and that was what they were talking about up there. She went in, and told Marika, who told her to shut her mouth.
She would have to live in the trailers on the outskirts of the city, where they stayed when they first came, where Stefan was like a cartoon king in his court. She would have to squeeze lumpily into a bed with other kids, would be driven with them each day into the city to find money. She would have to sing that song about life not being fair if you were of the people, but how your soul shone through it, hear it squeak through her dreams.
Dzemila read the thin girl’s face, and sensed her danger at the hands of these dark-hearted Romans. She forgot her own troubles for a second. She felt sorrow appear in her face.
There was Marika yelling for her: life going on, time to go to the restaurants with her lucky numbers, her flowers, and her card, on which was written in a child’s Italian, I am nine years old and I have eaten nothing today, I am a refugee from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and my family are dead before my eyes, please help me if you can.
Ari on the mobile, pleading somebody for a car, had to move this stuff tonight. The beep of connections cut. “I’ll have to get a car,” he told Marika.
“No,” she said. “Don’t do that again, please.”
“I have to.” He pointed at the pile of bags. “You come with me, then, Marika, and bring the child, and we can all take three bags each on the bus, huh?”
“Get a taxi.”
“It’s too far, and... Listen, Marika. I think it’s a long time since you were out there on the streets, here with your nice little job. When’s the last time you tried to get a taxi, eh? These taxi drivers – mafia. They don’t take us, but if they do, they see me with all this stuff and they’re on the radio to their pals, and then we’re stopping in some place where it will disappear. And so will I,” he finished darkly.
“I wish you would. I wish you had disappeared before you came here, you thieving, scheming shit, then I would still have my nice little job. Go on then, out and steal your car, and I hope they catch you.”
“That isn’t… Christian. Dzemila, don’t you listen to her, and don’t you grow up that way, do you hear me?”
“Okay,” Dzemila said equably. “What will happen?” she asked Marika once they were alone.
“Nothing.” Dzemila rarely got hope out of anything Marika said. The people did not lie to one another out of malice, she knew, rather embroidered real life with flowers of dreams. “Nothing will happen.”
“The apartment is ours again.” Dzemila looked around: no bags, no suitcases, no boxes, no Ari, none of his friends. The knowledge that they were about to leave it went through her and filled her eyes with a hint of tears.
“Had a glimpse of it,” Marika was saying, meant life in the centre of the city among those well-heeled Romans; not of them, of course – who wanted to belong to them? Clearing up their shit for them, okay, but still among them. “The women always get a glimpse,” she told Dzemila. “Aren’t afraid to climb to the high places and look out. And the men, what do they do? Always want to go that little bit higher but where there’s nowhere to stand, and mess it up. Mess it up, with their always wanting more.”
They jumped at the noise, the door, then voices, but it was just Zete. Two men with him, from the trailer site. They would stay in the apartment, Zete explained, and Niko, he was busy cancelling business he had for the next few days, and he too would be there, and… where was Ari?
“But so?” Marika asked her question at last.
“Nobody is going to make us leave.”
Dzemila was not cheered. She remembered Zete’s unnameable stupidity revealed with the incident of the food and the drink and the cheap scent. She tried to catch Marika’s eye, and did so, only to be told to wash her face and get her coat on, get herself to Stefan’s flower man in the Piazza Navona.
So passed Dzemila’s last evening as a resident of via della Scrofa in Rome’s historic city centre. A biting January night, on which she did her stuff with her eyes and her roses and her card, the suggestion of her lucky lottery numbers, in and out of the restaurants and bars and coffee houses. Dzemila went through it avoiding the trails of the other kids from the site, the same route she did each night from the Piazza Navona to the Campo di Fiori, from Saint John the Evangelist to the river. She forgot the imminent business of the apartment until she got back to Scrofa.
Things on the road spread her the tale. There was a red sock, hers, plates, broken, stamped into the ground, the tiny tablecloth made by the women of Malo Polje, near Mostar, across the street the cardboard box, which once held Turkish bananas and cockroaches, in which they had kept the oddments scattered at her feet, elastic bands, buttons, broken Walkman earphones. Dzemila stood and wondered what to do.
She was neither surprised by events nor fazed by the problem that faced her. One of them could have stayed behind, she was thinking, but then remembered the pony-tailed man and the violence in his eyes and mouth and hands. She had money from the flowers, would have to get the metro out to Dog Track she supposed, and walk from there to the site – what, two, three kilometres? She felt the people’s destiny hammered into her bones: trudge somewhere else, start again. She skipped for a few paces, which ensured that she missed Zete limping along and looking for her out of bruised, swollen eyes, and then began to walk.
Cleopatra's Script: so far
If you've read this far, you'll see that I've been introducing most of the characters that will play important roles in the story. No characters in any story should be superfluous to the main events, so at this point a reader has to take the writer's word that these people will play important roles later. Like any writer, I'm trying to show these characters' ordinary lives before the story really gets going, and yet the events I'm showing at this point also have to be part of the story.
There are a lot of characters, and I don't know if this makes it hard going or not. At the moment, they all have to be there. Near-enough every character in the novel has now been introduced.
Some readers 'don't like prologues', apparently, and ask the reasonable question, "Why don't you just make the prologue chapter one?" My reasonable answer is something like, "Why don't you just pretend that the prologue is chapter one?" I think both question and answer show that a prologue is somehow different from a simple introduction via the 'chapter one' heading. I can't really explain why, or rather, I can try, but each reason I give, eg, the prologue gives information that the writer wants a reader to know right from the start, can still be countered with the suggestion to just stick it into chapter one. So, in short, I don't know why there's a prologue here; it just seems right, for some reason.
I worked on Cleopatra's Script for a very long time - and wasn't just wondering whether to have a prologue or not. I kept leaving it for a few years at a time, and every now and then did short bursts of work on it. It's a bit like one of the bikes in the garage: occasionally I get it out and toodle with it because I think I can probably fix it, and I can't, not very well, and not well enough to trust on a ride, but can't chuck it away because it's a beautiful object under all the mouse shit and dust. I started it in the summer of 1998, during my first trip to Rome. I finished it in September 2021. I have no idea why it took me so long, though the timeline is deceptive in itself; obviously, I'd have died of writers' cramp and/or boredom if I'd been working on it non-stop. It would also have been a million words long. I left it for years, and concentrated on writing other novels, other stories, songs and instrumental music. I sometimes wasn't sure why; I always knew what the ending would be. It was stalled for years at around 120000 words. I've since added another 40000 - it's a Dickensian-sized slab of novel, and I'm not sure if it will ever get picked up, but that became unimportant to me over the 9 months or so it took to finish it. It was intense, but fun at times, tying all the ends together into a coherent story. For months I felt I was 'about 30 pages' from the end, and then something else would occur to me. I didn't know when I was actually 30 pages away from finishing it, of course.
When I first wrote it, I was determined that it should be as naturalistic as possible, according to each character in view. This means partly that there is no imposition of a style on the whole thing; if a character is kind of formal, like the Contessa Dortona, then often the style that puts her appearances into words will seem formal. Eugene is a bit of a slacker, so the accompanying style is kind of free-form, and leaves the third-person narrative to run with his distracted thoughts and utterances. His friend Olly gets a little more formality imposed on him - Olly gets fixed on different subjects, for example, so I'm attempting to show him trying to concentrate on them. Dzemila, the Gypsy girl, has her own style too, with her own voice, something I'm less familiar with, obviously, not knowing any small Gypsy children, so I have to just be a writer and make stuff up. Anne tends to be a bit prim-and-proper in some ways, though I want to show this as an endearing characteristic, in general. She is also from a small Pas de Calais town, compared to Eugene's background in London or Chiara's in Rome, and this determines to some extent how she thinks about things. This has presented some problems for me in passages in which these different characters - and their different styles - are interacting. It's not so apparent here in Part One, as most of the characters have separate chapters. Later, say when Eugene and Anne are together in a scene, I've used Anne's style when Anne is talking or thinking, and used Eugene's when he's the more active protagonist. I'm not sure I've resolved it. I'm hoping that successive rewrites have forced a natural merging of styles, and the gulf between them is no longer too apparent. All that matters in the end, as in the use of any style, is that it won't distract the reader from reading.
I was criticised in one writers' group for not making the Italian gangsters 'Italian' enough. Some people said, "They sound like they come from the East End of London." They said I should show them coming out with expressions that were... er, more Italian. Like what? Basically, they said I should be scattering a few ciaos and capiches and mama mias around. But the thing is, real Italians don't chuck in the odd Italian word to make themselves sound Italian; they are living in Italy and, of course, they speak their own language. As I'm not trying to write it in Italian (I don't know enough, for a start - I wish I did) I have to render their speech as everyday as I can. If the book ever gets translated into Italian, then it'll all be in Italian...
It's only the non-Roma people in the book who use the word Gypsy or Gypsies - the Roma refer to themselves simply as the people.
The prologue shows that Eugene and Anne have got together. The first few chapters show events before they are an item. They mostly keep Eugene out of the way, and concentrate on other characters: the foreigners there, Anne, and the Roma, who are at present living in the block on posh via della Scrofa, and the Italians, the Dortona woman, Anne's on-and-off friend Chiara and Tommaso and his friends, plus a petty villain called Vittorio. Some of the story will centre on the tensions between native Italians and the people some of them regard as interlopers.