Authors: Tim Parks
So I told my wife, apparently by way of easing the tension, that I was reading this book Suzanne had given me for my birthday my forty-fifth birthday, a book called
Black Spells Magic
, and my wife said, yes, Suzanne had been raving about it for weeks and had bought copies for everyone she knew, but no, she, my wife, hadn't read it. I thought how typical this was of the sublime lack of interest my wife has always shown for the lives of those around her, for the influences, adventures, friendships and agonies that are changing and reshaping those lives, and even for the simple details: why somebody is late, why somebody is calling from a phone-box; and I thought how this lack of interest had enabled me to conduct an intense love affair and to start reading and thinking and laughing and living again, without my wife's showing the slightest curiosity about what was happening to me, and later, again, had allowed me to stop living, to descend into utter mental darkness, to withdraw into the silence of complete and total alienation, so unlike my normal, talkative, and on occasion people have gone so far as to say charming self, without my wife's appearing to notice anything at all.
Well, I was a shade concerned, I said to my wife, how pro-lesbian this book was, you know? I hoped Suzanne wasn't getting ideas into her head, I hoped there wasn't any more to it than met the eye. But no sooner had I touched on this particular subject, which masked what in the end is my first new thought
for some weeks or months, than two things happened at once: Nicoletta came out of the loo about twenty yards away, saw me, smiled at me; and my wife a hundred miles away burst out laughing. Typically then, it was precisely as I demanded to know what was so funny, winking at the same time at Nicoletta, who is rather taller than I had thought, that I appreciated that she, my wife, was right. She is right, I told myself, while she went on. laughing. She is perfectly right. It is ridiculous of you to be so concerned about the sexual orientation of your daughter, eighteen years old tomorrow on the fourth of the fifth, and thus entirely beyond your jurisdiction and probably even influence, and especially ridiculous since that concern, though your wife couldn't know this, was only felt with regard to a possible relationship between your daughter and
, your ex-mistress, a relationship (lesbian), what's more, that in the delirious post-coital moments of three and four years ago, you had longed for for yourself. Why shouldn't your daughter at eighteen have the pleasure of a lesbian encounter? Not to mention, to stay on the subject of your being entirely ridiculous, the present instance of your having more or less decided, while worrying about your daughter, to try to seduce, on this coach trip, a girl only two or three years her senior.
How are things looking jobwise? my wife asked quite kindly, apparently appreciating and deciding to satisfy my need for cordiality, but I said my money had run out and got off the line.
I caught up with this girl Nicoletta about half-way up the cement stairs and, speaking to her in English, which ! knew she would take as a compliment, I remarked with the most engaging and I suspect infectious bonhomie, that these cement stairs resembled nothing more, did they not, than those at the University, where one had to pick one's way through students standing and sitting and chatting and even
on occasion. She laughed to hear me deliberately use a word she had just learnt from Colin's favourite lexicon, and with one of those wonderful gestures that Italian girls are always making and that English girls never make, or I don't recall them making, she slipped her hand under my arm to proceed the last dozen or so stairs together in close and amicable contact, with me saying that this inflicting upon us of the same architectural pattern in more or less the same materials the world over was at once inevitable yet depressing, and her laughing and saying that that must be the third or fourth pessimistic thing she had heard me say, and then even leaning slightly against me, which at once delighted me with the electric stupid and wonderful thought,
I'm on here
, but at the same time unnerved me because it occurred to me that far from feeling jealous, or even, and less interestingly, happy for me, which is not something frankly I would care for,
would think me monstrous to be arm in sentimental arm with a young girl after only a couple of hours together on a coach. She would think this was proof of how completely off the rails I was. She might even go and say something to her, to the girl, or to me, about my dangerous past. So that, turning the final corner of the stairs, I took the opportunity of having to push open another double glass door to disentangle myself from the young Nicoletta, and at the same time noticed, as I stood aside and ushered her through in an exaggeratedly cavalier fashion, that the anorak she was wearing was a dead dark blue and very shabby and her jeans likewise and her shoes clumpy and sensible. And while I couldn't help feeling how delightfully endearing this was, together with the fact that she wore no make-up on a tissue-pale face with that jet-dark hair above, still I immediately felt a pang of regret for
more flamboyant femininity, manipulative though it may have been, her sharp high heels and short skirts and suspender gear
, which she would keep on while she masturbated for me in Professor De Santis's office, or later, in the period when she still liked to think of my jealousy as something of a joke and invited me to belt her arse. I regretted her theatricality, the feeling you had with her that she would and could squeeze, as Colin would say, the very most out of life, and above all - and this was so refreshing after my wife's obsession with varnishing and cleaning and repairing - her determination to shake things up, her pleasure in seeing things change, people change. Her desire to have things happen. Whereas this little girl, this nice-mannered Nicoletta of the jolly bounce and cocked cheek, already pulling out her little black purse from one of those hideous fluorescent nylon pouches all young Italians tie about their waists, this charming young girl, now remarking with resignation that she has no Swiss francs, is clearly of the common-sense variety. At the most. she will kiss and make love. I will never be able to take her through the Rheims routine.
Then in the queue with trays and a mill of people, I was just pointing Nicoletta to the small sign in six or seven languages that indicated that we could pay for our beverages in Swiss francs, French francs, Austrian schillings, Deutschmarks, sterling and, yes, amazingly, Italian lire, when the Avvocato Malerba, who was immediately in front of me in the queue, leaned towards us to say that although this was true it didn't make sense to pay in lire because the exchange rate was so unfavourable. The exchange rate was about forty lire to the franc worse than you could get at the Bureau de Change downstairs (there had been a small blue plastic sign with a white stylized image of a stack of coins on a pile of banknotes, though of course they will never change coins, just as most girls never wear skirts) and this in-itself, the Avvocato Malerba went on, meaning the Bureau de Change exchange rate, was more than thirty lire worse than the exchange rate yesterday, for the simple reason that the Bundesbank had been expected to lower their Interest rates at a meeting yesterday evening, but then hadn't done so, thus throwing, as it emerged from the morning paper and indeed from the chaos in the Bureau de Change downstairs (where they did not even want to see Italian lire), the European currency markets into
. Yes, our dear Europe was
, announced the Avvocato Malerba. And he thus suggested, raising his voice now, because of the noise two loutish French schoolboys were making choosing a pastry, that we might take some Swiss francs from him, repaying him, if we insisted, in lire at the rate he had, with uncanny foresight, exchanged them at the day before, i.e. something to the tune, all told, taking into account the devaluation of the lira and the price-exploitation practised by the Chambersee Service Station cafeteria, of eighty lire to the franc more favourable.
This was my first encounter with the Avvocato Malerba, who I knew taught a course on Employment Legislation in the Law Faculty and had been encouraged to come along by Vikram to present the legal side of our case as lucidly as possible in the event of our having to talk to legal experts and above all in the event of our having to explain why, while it was perfectly normal to hire people on only a one- or two-year contract in the UK or France or Germany, in Italy, or at least in the public sector, this could only be considered as a case -of discrimination against foreign teaching staff. The Avvocato was a tall, dry-looking man, not far off retirement it seemed, but surprisingly boyish in manner when he began to talk, almost childishly animated you might say, and painfully eager to please, as witness this very generous offer, made in a stiltedly correct English, to save a little money for two people he had never met before.
I immediately wondered, while we were more or less bound to accept and Nicoletta made all kinds of ingenuous murmurings, in an equally stilted though less correct English, as to how kind he was being, what on earth had prompted this elderly lawyer and university professor to waste two, no, three days in coaches and service stations and cheap hotels with a gaggle of young girls and a motley of feckless foreigners whingeing about the job they'd be lucky to lose. Did he just want to see the European Parliament, was he the spy who was keeping the University informed of our every legal move? I remembered now that both Dimitra and Georg had been against his coming, finding it strange that somebody in the employ of the University should see fit to support our cause in this open and indeed recklessly obvious fashion, and particularly someone, they were Dimitra's words, who had
no history of left-wing militancy or union activity
All the time I was thinking this and choosing my croissant from what looked like a very weary pile, and hearing Nicoletta introduce herself to the Avvocato and the Avvocato saying what a wonderful name she had and how Nicoletta derived originally from the Greek
, victory - all the while this was going on I was growing more and more intensely aware, to my great surprise and trepidation, of
voice, immediately behind me, talking to Vikram Griffiths and insisting that we have a proper meeting on arrival at the hotel this evening to decide the strategy for our approach for the following morning, to decide above all, she said, not to mince words,
who should be our representativeÂ
on this occasion.
It was the first time, I should explain, standing beside Nicoletta and the Avvocato Malerba choosing pastries from a glass case in the Chambersee Service Station, that I had heard
voice for some months. Despite working in the same institution, we have both gone out of our way to avoid each other since the last tremendous encounter of perhaps nine months ago when first we made love and then shouted at each other until I held a knife first at her breast and then at my wrist and then wept and hit her and finally went off to smoke cigarettes all night on the sofa and drink heavily while she slept in my bed, the first time I had heard this French voice speaking Italian with wonderfully over-pronounced âr's and under-pronounced âl' and its curious inversion of Italian intonations, this voice that in its time has whispered to me almost every loving word and erotic provocation one person can whisper to another and then again has shouted almost every extreme of contempt and derision. And even as I listened to the way she was rather unpleasantly hectoring the clownish Vikram Griffiths, who of course was convinced, having arranged everything himself, that he was to be the representative, but at the same time, to show off to the students, was pouring whisky from a hip flask into his plastic coffee cup and then going over to the window to wave down, cigarette in hand, to where two girls were walking his shambling dog (crossed out of the service station by a small blue sign) - even as ! listened to her following him and hectoring him, IÂ
knew that it would never be over for me
. Never. Your stupid heart, I told myself, as Vikram Griffiths, hardly helping his cause, now made a joke about the whisky being called Teachers, will always leap on hearing Italian spoken with a French accent. Always. You will never get âbeyond this, I told myself. Old Dafydd's a terrible shagger, Vikram laughed, given half a chance. He was waving at the-window. Never. A shaggy shagger, he laughed. Then, together with a sense of resignation and defeat, I was suddenly filled with an immense and absolutely crazy desire to make myself heard, to see if
voice, my English voice speaking Italian in an inevitably English accent, mightn't have the same effect on her, while she argued with Vikram Griffiths, as her French voice was having on me while I engaged in a less than enthralling conversation about exchange rates with the Avvocato Malerba. So that when, a metre or two on, at the till, the Avvocato laughed and said how strange it was to have Germany playing the spoilsport in Europe, and not Britain, a real reversal of roles, the Avvocato Malerba said, I immediately and patriotically and very loudly objected that these things were never a question merely of one country or another's being more or less altruistic, but of each country always exercising all the power it had at its disposal to get, so far as was possible, what it wanted, what it perceived, that is, was in its, and only its, best interests. For this is what it means, I said, to be a sovereign individual, a sovereign state.
I raised my voice quite considerably as I engaged in this argument, surprising young Nicoletta and the Avvocato Malerba not a little as the latter paid exactly eighteen Swiss francs and forty-five - yes, forty-five - centimes for three coffees, a pastry, a croissant and a cream cake, upon which Nicoletta immediately began to fuss in her money pouch, trying to establish how much exactly she owed. Just as this service station, I insisted, still in the same hectoring tone, and thus not unlike the voice
had been using with Vikram Griffiths, this Swiss service- station, despite its friendly display of flagpoles suggesting adherence to the current orthodoxy of some kind of fraternity among nations and the generally fashionable notion of solidarity, this service station was chiefly and properly concerned in exacting the maximum price (in whatever currency) consistent with people's continuing to purchase the optimum volume of the merchandise it supplied. No, you will never get beyond this, I told myself, but with a curious surge of elation now. As if it were pleasant to be stuck here. As if glad to know where I was.