My husband was a vain man with a thick orange moustache who loved to look at his beautiful wife, slim like a model and striking on the streets. Look, people nudged each other. Look at her! He liked to see them nudge each other, and liked to watch me across tables or from the far side of a room, pleased with his thick orange moustache and his striking wife. As for myself, I was a woman full of greed: my husband, whose name was Reynold, was soon to be a professor with an income and a position, while I could never be anything wealthier than a striking secretary with lovely legs and little future.
We drove towards our summer in Tuscany, taking wrong turnings in three countries and asking directions of wooden-faced locals who gestured vaguely down the road. We had been looking forward to our summer in Italy, although I had wondered if Rennie's vanity and my greed would survive a foreign summer, alone with each other for so long. Here there would be no parties or streets where we could glitter. Rennie had joked about it: Think you'll be putting cyanide in my tea by August, darling? as if he was not sure either, behind his powerful moustache.
We kept asking for Aretta, as Daniel had told us to. But all those leathery farmers, and their wives with aprons full of beans, shook their heads blankly. At last Rennie lost patience with peasants who refused to understand his version of Italian, and drove fast along the narrow lanes, turning right and left at random, thrusting his chin out in the way he did when life was misbehaving. Finally, at the top of a hill we saw the same view of Florence below for the third time, and he agreed to stop and let me try asking the way.
I used my fingers to mark the pages of useful phrases in Italian for Fun, still crisp and untried. I was made reckless by all this tiresome driving and chin-thrusting.
- Per favore, I read slowly, Per favore, Signora, dov'é Aretta?
It was a woman in black with heavy stockings that had fallen around her ankles, dangling a hen from one hand and a cleaver from the other. She shook her head and muttered and gestured up and down the road with the flapping hen, saying something that was not in the book. She did not seem to be saying To the left, to the right, or straight on. Rennie stared in front of him and tapped his fingers on the wheel but I was desperate enough to try another of the names Daniel had written down for us. When she heard it, the woman's face split into a smile that showed a single tooth and the cleaver glittered as it pointed up the road.
- San Giorgio, si, si, a sinistra, sempre sinistra.
- Grazie, I read, then said, but Rennie accelerated away up the road, whipping my head back and leaving the woman and her doomed hen behind in the floating dust.
We sped a sinistra along the lanes then, through tiny villages with long pious names, where all the shutters on the faded walls were closed against the sun. Were they all ghost towns? Or were sleepy villagers, woken from their naps by the car, coming to the windows in their vests to squint at the bright streets, and the car with the steering- wheel on the wrong side?
Across the side of a barren slope of olive trees, we were forced to grind along behind a tractor with a bright green umbrella attached to the back that swayed with every rubbery bounce of the machine. The driver's face under the umbrella was a luminous green and even his teeth were asparagus-colour as he turned to grin and wave at us with flamboyant ambiguous gestures. Locked behind him, sweating in the cramped car, we were getting tired of smiling and waving back. Rennie finally took the risk of becoming another statistic, and overtook the grinning green farmer on yet another blind corner.
Daniel had said, Look for the flags, you can't miss them. But we missed them until Rennie finally spotted the bare flagpole above the trees. As we slowed down to drive up the rutted track that led to the house, the car became intolerable, now that the journey was nearly over: cramped, noisy, and full of insufferably hot air.
Daniel was a professor in London, a professor with beautiful suits and small feet. Your husband will matter, he told me. Rennie will matter one day, but first he must finish the dissertation. Daniel owned land as well as suits, a property in Tuscany where he had lived with his wife, an Italian signora of means. His two children, his son and daughter, still lived on this property, in one of the two villas. A villa: I heard that word and became languorous, with visions of balustrades, a view of blue water, cool white wine, bare feet on marble. My villa, Daniel said. Spend the summer there, dear boy, and get that wretched dissertation done.
So we were to arrive at the first villa, where the children lived, and they would direct us to the second villa, where we would spend our summer.
At the house with the flagpole, we rang the doorbell again and again but finally, reluctantly, had to recognize that Hugo and Viola were not at home. We stood wondering what to do, and covered our ears against the outraged barking of a dog that threatened us with long yellow teeth, tugging at the chain that held it within inches of the wall of the house. Its bark seemed piercing enough to bring crowds storming out of the woods to drive off the strangers. As we stared up at the windows of the villa, we did our best to look like friends of the family. The dog knew, though, and we knew. We knew we were foreigners, and did not speak the language.
Looking for another door at the back of the house, we found two small wild birds tethered to the ground by lengths of fishing line. The birds leapt and leapt into the air, but each time their twig-like legs were nearly pulled out of their sockets and they fell back to the ground. They had worn a circular bald patch in the grass, but they fluttered in silence.
Through the glass of the back door we could see the empty kitchen, which had the smug tidiness of a decoy. One wall of the room was covered with identical clocks, like the ones in railway stations, and each one showed a different time. Rennie peered in, then pushed back his cuff to glance at his watch, and I listened at the glass. I held my breath, but my ears were still humming after the hours in the car. I could not tell if the whirring I could hear was from the clocks or from the tired machinery in my own head.
- Wonder how long they'll be.
Rennie had taken off his watch to wind it, but he almost dropped it, jumping backwards in fright as one of the birds blundered against his leg. I looked away as he wiped with a leaf at the runny white gob on his shoe, and would have liked to have jumped back into that intolerable car and driven away. That did not seem possible, and I sat down on the steps with Rennie to wait for Daniel's children.
The afternoon sun had left the steps now, and the shadow of the house was reaching over the vineyards that sloped down the hill. Over the snarling and barking of the dog, we discussed the possibility that the house on the opposite ridge might be the one we were going to stay in. We were polite to each other, and did not say No, always Yes, but ... A habit of surface had grown between us and in spite of dogs and horrors, we were bland and conversed well. Rennie pointed out that there was a house on top of almost every ridge, wherever we looked. He was so persuasive, and the landscape revealed so many earth-coloured, crumbling houses when looked at closely, that we almost convinced each other that this was the wrong house altogether, in spite of the flagpole.
At last a dull grey van like a riot-truck bumped up the track. We stood uncertainly. This could be the happy ending, the arrival of our hosts to let us begin our summer in Tuscany. Or it could be the story of misunderstanding with Italian police. If we looked like trespassers or thieves, how would we explain that we were not what we seemed to be?
The windscreen reflected the sky so that whoever was inside the van was invisible, but when the door opened the two people who stepped out were obviously Daniel's children. Even for brother and sister they looked very alike. Their silence was like the silence of one person, their poise like a piece of china on a quiet mantelpiece. They were young, but they moved like a couple used to being stared at admiringly, and their smooth faces looked as if they would never become ugly with emotion. Rennie advanced on them with a confident outstretched hand.
-Hello, I'm Rennie Dufrey and this is my wife Louise. Did Daniel tell you to expect us?
The two bland faces seemed prepared to deflect any amount of bonhomie. Hugo smiled as he shook hands but his nod looked more like resignation than an answer.
-Yes, we were expecting you.
From his boarding-school English no one would have guessed that his mother was Italian. Viola stared at me and said nothing so I thought perhaps she did not speak English. There was a silence in which all four of us stood looking at each other, a silence in which Rennie's smile went flaccid. Viola finally spoke, over-solicitous like any reluctant hostess, and in perfect English:
- I expect you'd like to go straight to the other house.
Nothing in the manner of this couple urged us to stay, and something about the long wait, the tortured dog, the tortured birds, made the words pop out of my mouth:
- Yes, yes please.
The brother and sister started to say something at once, and exchanged a glance. Then Hugo said:
- Just keep going up the road. It's that house over there. You have the key, don't you?
Rennie held it up and joked about how it was like a dungeon key. He spoke rather loudly to make it clear he was joking. Viola and Hugo stared at him patiently. They did not seem to expect fun or boredom from their visitors, these friends of their father's, but were just determined to endure us. Rennie had lost faith in his little joke by the time Hugo finally spoke.
- Domenico will bring you bread every day. There is no need to pay him.
Rennie began to protest vaguely but Viola was already moving towards the house and interrupted him to speak over her shoulder.
- You must ask if you need anything.
Hugo moved away to a shed beside the house. It seemed unnecessary and even inappropriate to keep on thanking or greeting or farewelling, but when Rennie started the engine its noise filled the silence rudely. As the hot little car bounced over the ruts I glanced back and saw Hugo come out of the shed holding a scrap of bright cloth.
- Perhaps they're shy, Rennie said. Perhaps they'll improve on acquaintance.
My husband, that man of optimism, did not look at me as he spoke, so he did not have to see me shake my head.
-Don't you think? he asked after a moment, and looked at me, but I had finished shaking my head.
-Don't you think? he asked again.
I did not, but I did not say so.
He refused to be discouraged when the key would not budge in the rusted lock of the front door, and set off to look for a small window with Boy Scout resourcefulness and cheer. I picked my way through the blackberries after him, trying not to think about spiders and snakes, and feeling spied on. I wished I had asked Viola for a cup of tea. Rennie enjoyed smashing the smallest window with the heel of his shoe and I felt he regretted being too large for the hole.
-Careful, Louise, he kept saying as I took hold of the rotten frame to pull myself up. Careful now.
As I pulled myself through, I felt my palm slide across an edge of glass and cobwebs brush my face. For a moment I was stuck halfway and had to fight panic.
-You okay? I heard Rennie call from behind me, but he was in the world I was leaving. I was entering a foreign one that smelled of mould and was dark, the unknown interior of a strange house.
- You okay, Louise?
My toes finally struck the floor and I let myself down into a small damp room, crouching, expecting a blow, feeling the blood sticky between my fingers.
Daniel had described the house as rustic and had apologized for offering it to us for the summer. It's terribly primitive dear boy, he had said, and smoothed a lapel of his beautiful suit. I am ashamed dear boy. We'd expected a lot of turned and varnished wood, bunches of dried flowers everywhere, and perhaps even an old well in the middle of a garden overgrown with roses. We hadn't imagined that Daniel's description was a euphemism for the last stages of decay.
When we began exploring the house we tiptoed and whispered to each other like trespassers. What? Find something? Rennie thought I spoke when I said nothing, and thought I found something-what was he looking for? - when there was nothing to find. Every room we went into was dark and silent. When the shutters were pushed back against the clenched hinges, yellow Tuscan light filled the air, but revealed nothing more sinister than a scattering of mouse-droppings. Under the rotten ceiling of the middle room upstairs, there was a heap of acid-white bird-droppings from the murmurous dove-loft in the roof, and birds peered down at us through the hole in the ceiling, ruffling their wings and shifting uneasily.
Next door in the corner room, the shutters yielded to a push and fell away into the bushes outside. The window-frame sagged suddenly inwards and we stepped back. Rennie looked up at the beams above us that supported the roof. They did not collapse as we watched, but we could see deep cracks running the length of each one. The adze marks of two centuries before could still be seen on the dry wood, so that I imagined the hot sweat running off the backs of men labouring to build this house: It will stand forever, they would have told each other, and slapped each beam, still bleeding sap, and they would have gone to their wives at night and held them all the more fervently for thinking they were building something that would last forever. A colossal weight of terracotta tiles bore down on the beams that those men had shaped, weight bearing down year after year and teasing the brittle grain of the wood further and further apart, towards the final collapse that would send clouds of dust and astonished doves into the air. But those adze-men would not have thought about that.
Along the hall, in a big room with a view, Rennie stamped on the floor to see if it would hold, glanced up at the ceiling where only a few flakes of plaster drifted down, and decided that this was the best room to work in. There was a table in the room and he dragged it over to the window for a desk.
-All set for the summer darling, he said, and I felt fear at the idea of this particular stretch of my future, not wanting to think as far ahead as a whole summer.
There were three narrow beds in this room, each with a cover of clear plastic over the mattress. In one of them a family of mice had made a nest in the mattress among the kapok and the springs. It was a cosy home, but exposed like a display under the plastic, four baby mice, like thick pink maggots, wormed slowly over each other while the bigger mice nosed further into the wadding between the springs, enlarging the nest. This happy family seemed to think it was invisible, safe under its plastic, and was not disturbed by the people bending over it.
-Think someone's watching us like this?
Rennie poked at the plastic over the nest and the mice stopped shifting around each other. They listened, felt the air with their whiskers twitching, perhaps prayed.
- I feel like God, Rennie said.
I fancied the idea of being God, too, and pressed up and down on the mattress so that the nest bounced and the mice scrabbled and clawed over each other's backs. One of them slipped up out of the nest and slid along between the plastic and the mattress, towards the edge of the bed. Escape! A worthy dream. But like any god I had my cruel streak, and was not ready for escape just yet. I pressed down on the bed and tightened the cover on either side of this bold escaping mouse until its fur flattened and its tiny head struggled against the plastic squeezing down on it. It was a despicable triumph, but it was a triumph, and when the mouse gave up the struggle and lay as if dead I released it. Like any other chastened explorer it turned and crept back the way it had come, back into the nest.
- Great view darling. Better than that foul orange fence at home.
I came to stand beside him at the window to agree about the great view. The badly-shaved cheek of a patchy field of wheat curved down to a wooded valley and a matching field curved up the other side of the house on the opposite hill, where small wild birds were slowly killing themselves in despair. It seemed possible to walk out of this window across the air into the same window across the valley, where the limp flag of a curtain shifted along the wall from time to time. Watching in silence, we waited to see Hugo and Viola appear but they did not, and Rennie turned away from the window. He brushed a grey line of cobweb off the front of my shirt and said:
- We'll be able to afford a view when we go back to London. No more orange fences.
He kicked at a sheet of newspaper beside the table, revealing a small hole in the wall at floor-level and a scattering of mortar.
-Ah. The mice.
He bent down and pushed a finger in, but pulled it out again quickly. I watched the back of his head and wondered if he was remembering warnings from childhood about how dangerous fingers in holes could be.
-Like mascots, coming and going while I work.
He pulled the paper back loosely over the hole and stood looking at it and smiling. When my husband smiled, his orange moustache became twisted and alive under his nose. There were times when I would have liked to rip it off his face.
-As long as they don't take a fancy to the inside of my pants-leg, of course.
We laughed together at that good joke, because it was only Louise, the lovely wife of Reynold, who was supposed to take a fancy to the inside of her husband's pants-leg.
Long Italian dusk was darkening from moment to moment now, and our first night in our villa was about to begin. We decided to use only two of the upstairs rooms, and left the others, full of the smell of mould and mouse-droppings, to breathe and crumble quietly behind closed doors. In the back room with the murkily mirrored wardrobe, we swept up the mouse-dirt and made the bed.
We ate a dry meal of leftover sandwiches in the kitchen and could hear the mice beginning to play through the house, and plopping and squeaking scratchily. Going upstairs in the dark I heard Rennie's heavy boots ahead of me on the stairs and waited for the squelch.
We climbed into the high bed and lay stiffly, feeling the strangeness of the house, or of each other.
-Goodnight darling, Rennie said.
-Goodnight darling, I said back.
He began breathing heavily beside me and the bedclothes stirred regularly over his rounded back. He was a tidy sleeper, so it was hard to be certain whether he was really asleep. If I whispered Fire! would he bounce up, fling the bedclothes back, leap to the window? The bed was almost too narrow for a couple, but even so my husband made a space between our bodies. When I slid across to curve myself against his back, he retreated further, to the very edge of the bed. He seemed prepared to fall out of this high bed rather than feel me curved around him.
I did not want to have him fall out of our bed, so I slid back to my own side. I listened to the pattering and scratching of the mice through the house, and thought about grossly obese women and their reinforced mattresses. I had heard that the tiny husbands of such women were forced to slide to the floor, pad around the bed, and get in on the other side, when their wife felt the urge to turn over in bed.
I would not enjoy being such a husband, in danger of suffocation. I would not enjoy being such a wife, either, trapped by fat. In the connubial bed of our London flat, Rennie had liked plenty of space between our bodies, but there, in a bigger bed, it had been less obvious.
Before we could make the bed in this room, we had had to shake a layer of grit off the cover and pillows. Throughout every day and every night, tiny flakes of plaster had come loose from the ceiling and floated down, with grains of sawdust that trickled out of the thousands of pin-point holes that riddled the beams above the bed. Those beams! They looked so strong, so massively rough- hewn, and they were as weak as grass. The light rain of debris would go on falling as we lay under it, and I lay feeling or imagining it falling on my face and on Rennie's breathing back. How long would it take, lying still, to be smothered completely? Perhaps before that could happen, the whole house would fold in on itself. I thought about the lingering way buildings fall to their knees when subjected to the wrong kind of stress.
The scrabble of claws over tiles carried through the still house like the silly scratch of a watch held to the ear. I fingered myself between my legs and when I closed my eyes I imagined the twitching noses of inquisitive mice, their eyes alert and unblinking in the darkness as they took stock of the intruders. The back of my hand rasped against the sheet, and I heard my breath coming more quickly, until my knees fell away from each other and I was consumed by white pleasure like a bonfire.
Back in London I'd known just how to set the bed squeaking and make such a friction in the space between our bodies that I could no longer believe Rennie was asleep. But asleep or not, he seldom turned to me full of lust and the dream of pleasure. He lay on, breathing blamelessly or guiltily, not touching his wife as she writhed beside him. I listened to his steady breathing and wondered if his eyes were wide open on the dark, staring at the grey square of the window, concentrating on keeping his breathing as unhurried as someone lost in peaceful dreams.
I envied the simplicity of his deceit. Mine would have to be more elaborate. I jammed my forefinger up into myself as far as it would go, then held it up to my face, straining to see in the dark, sniffing, finally licking at it tentatively with the tip of my tongue. There was still no sign, no stickiness, no sharp metallic taste. How much longer would Rennie not notice the gap in the rhythm of my months? How much longer did I have, before he would guess at the possibility of a new being embedded in my flesh, swelling on my blood? How sweetly he'd kiss me - That's wonderful darling - and what a hug he'd give me. How easy it was to imagine the bewilderment - but of course we want to keep it! His eyes would watch me then, watch my every move, and I would never be able to escape.