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Roman Holiday


9 minutes

The thing she noticed most about Rome was all the feet. Not that you could call it a pedestrian city; but it was certainly a city of pedestrians. The narrow streets of its mediaeval and Renaissance quarters were thronged with strolling crowds: long-legged girls in flimsy slip-ons, elegant matrons in stilettos; Italians in Gucci loafers and Americans in Reeboks and Englishmen in socks and sandals. Proceeding, with varying degrees of purposefulness, from shop to shop or from cafe to cafe; a living exercise in perpetual motion.

That morning they had put their hands into the Mouth of Truth in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. A man took their photograph. Evidence, she thought, sensing her lover's unease. They had visited the Trevi Fountain, which wasn't working. No point in tossing a coin to ensure their return. They had walked around the Forum, and the Colosseum, and the Baths of Caracalla. Now they sat at a restaurant table in Piazza Navona, watching the people go by. The desultory remarks occasioned by this pastime were the closest they had come to a conversation all day.

It was in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori - once the site of an Ancient Roman temple - that she had seen her first foot. It wasn't just any foot, either, but the foot of the Holy Roman Emperor. As feet go, it was a large foot - six feet long, and three across. Its big toe alone was twelve inches wide, with a toenail the size of a soup-plate. Constantine's head was there, too: as tall as a man. The eyes were disproportionately large, she thought, in relation to the narrow brow and thin-lipped mouth. This colossal head and foot - and a no-less monstrous finger - were displayed against a wall the colour of dried blood. It was a colour she now associated with the city, and with the mood she was in, which was angry and sad at the same time. A dark red mood. Choleric-melancholic. Hot tears brimming behind closed eyelids.

This had not been her state of mind when she had planned the holiday - then, she had been elated. The prospect of spending the whole weekend alone with her lover in a beautiful foreign city had seemed one of perfect felicity. For the first time in months they would be able to relax in one another's company; to talk about things they never had time to discuss, in the feverish haste of their clandestine meetings.

A few days before the trip, she had taken a day off work and gone shopping for clothes. Two dresses - white for daytime, black for evening - and a pair of smart new sandals. Italian-made - they would have been cheaper there, but she didn't want to wait. The night before she was due to leave for the airport she painted her toenails red - that particular shade of scarlet Italian women always wore.

He wasn't at the airport when she got there, but this did not worry her unduly. He was generally late for their meetings, and she was all-too familiar with the relentless demands of his schedule. But it had been several days since they had spoken; she wasn't even sure he had got the (coded) message she had left on his office answering-machine, confirming the arrangements for their rendezvous. There was of course no question of phoning him at home, and he didn't like it when she rang his mobile. 'It's better if I ring you,' he said.  

The check-in at Terminal 2 was an unattractive place; its low ceilings and harsh lighting had a depressing effect. After walking up and down for twenty minutes or so - meeting the eyes of people who, like herself, were looking for somebody else - she decided there would be no harm in trying his office once more. She would be discreet; she would simply ask if he had picked up his messages that day. The line was busy, and after a few seconds of Ode to Joy she hung up, and trailed her suitcase back to the airline's enquiry desk. Had there been any messages for her? There had been no messages. Half an hour had elapsed since they were supposed to meet.

The unthinkable thought that he might not be coming after all - that she might be stuck at the airport alone while her flight number was called and the other passengers boarded the plane without her - seemed suddenly plausible. Why hadn't he returned her call yesterday? Perhaps something had happened. When he arrived a few minutes later - the traffic had been terrible - she could barely look at him.

'I'm sick of hanging around, waiting for you,' she heard herself say, cutting across his explanations. 'It's all I ever bloody do.'

They had made it up later, of course - but by then the damage was done. The mood of the holiday spoilt before they had even got off the ground.

Inside the Palazzo was another colossal foot. This one was made of bronze, and it stood on a plinth by itself in a room full of Roman heads. It was a damaged foot - its little toe and a section of the heel had been torn away, to reveal the hollow insides. It made her think of the partially-dissected plaster feet she had seen earlier that day in the window of a shop selling wheelchairs and artificial limbs. The museum was full of statues: fleet-footed Diana, with her quiver full of arrows; Bacchus with his wineskin between his widespread knees. There were emperors and gods and sphinxes with the heads of women. Marcus Aurelius on his gilded horse and the Dying Gaul.

The Gaul's feet were smooth and white as if made out of soap. Soapy drops trickled from the wound in his side. His feet were lovely, she thought. Delicate tributaries of veins branching across fan-shaped metatarsals. Her own - chafed by the sandals' unyielding straps - were beginning to swell. She sat on a bench overlooking the piazza, while her lover walked from room to room, looking at heads. A goitrous Nero, a curly-bearded Hadrian. Alexander the Great, with his film-star profile.

'What's the matter?'

'My feet hurt.'

'Do you want to go back to the hotel?' His tone of voice was neutral; but she saw a flicker of impatience in his eyes.

'I'm sorry,' she said, hating the way it sounded.

'What for?'

'I'm just sorry.'

'There's nothing to be sorry for,' he said, with a shrug.

She had come across her next foot at the top of the Palatine that afternoon. The sun beat down on the back of her neck as she stopped to catch her breath, looking out over vistas of cypresses and broken arches, and the fallen pillars of the Temple of Venus. This foot was a smaller foot than the others, though still several times larger than life. A minor general, she thought, or a senator for some rural backwater. Toppled, now, from his pedestal; his name forgotten. Running her hands over the sun-warmed stone, she tried to summon up the appropriate lines. Something about about trunkless legs and desert sands. The vanity of human wishes. Ahead of her, in the shimmering heat, her lover walked silent and self-absorbed, like a man enjoying a solitary stroll.

They had dinner in Campo dei Fiori, where, in 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno had been burned at the stake for heresy. The piazza was not a large one - no more than two hundred yards across, with houses all around. She pictured it full of people - packed as close as they could bear it to the scaffold; hanging out of windows and climbing on the fountains for a better view. The stench of burning flesh must have been appalling. She wondered how long it had taken him to die. Perhaps the smoke would have killed him first. Perhaps not.

On the side of the square where they were sitting, twin fountains like overflowing baths cast a watery light on their faces, and on the faces of their fellow diners. Beautiful girls sauntered up and down with their lovers. A strolling guitarist played sentimental tunes very badly. Her lover seemed distracted. Once or twice she caught his eye and he smiled, with a certain effort. She was reluctant to ask him what he was thinking about, in case he told her the truth. She didn't want to hear about his work, his financial worries, or his wife. She especially didn't want to hear about his wife.

How're the feet?' he asked her suddenly.

'Fine. Better in high heels, actually...'

'That'll teach you to wear sensible shoes.'

There was a softer look in his eyes. She had an impulse to reach across the table and touch his face. Maybe, after all, everything would be all right. But then the waiter arrived with their food, and the moment passed.

That night she lay beside him, unable to sleep. Watching the car headlights move across the ceiling; her eyes stretched wide to the darkness, as if she didn't want to miss a single second of the unending night. Once, parched after the red wine she had drunk, she got up for a glass of water. Her lover stirred, murmured something which might have been a question; then fell back, pole-axed, into the abyss of sleep. She stood at the window, trying to read the time on her watch by the glare of the street-lamps. It must have been late, or early. The sky was getting light. She felt nothing but dull anger - with him, and with herself. Their situation was hopeless - it would never be resolved. Telling herself she was a fool to think it could ever have been otherwise, she drifted at last into unconsciousness.

Next day, which was that of their departure, they went to the Keats museum. It had been her idea, but when they got there she wasn't sure if she could go through with it. Her sleepless night had left her feeling tired and slightly hysterical, so that her eyes filled with tears for no reason at all. Her feet hurt worse than ever. She thought of Byron, with his club-foot, limping painfully up the stairs to the sickroom. Byron had lived just across the street, the guidebook said. Had he, in fact, been around when Keats was dying, she wondered idly. There was that nasty crack he'd made about Keats having being killed by a review - surely he wouldn't have been so cruel if he had actually witnessed the man's last days? Although Byron was probably capable of any amount of brutality if it made a good line.

They sifted through the familiar, pathetic clutter - the life mask and the death mask, the locks of hair, the manuscripts with their scratchings-out and insertions. Most of these were facsimiles, her lover pointed out; their originals were elsewhere, in more prestigious collections. The best thing was the house itself, she thought - that you couldn't take away. It was fanciful to suppose that these narrow rooms with their painted ceilings still retained anything of their past identity, or that of their long-dead inhabitant. And yet you could look down - as he had done perhaps, from this very window - at the people wandering up and down the piazza, or trailing their hands in the fountain that was like a leaking boat. You could stand where he had stood on the balcony overlooking the famous steps, and the houses with their bloodstain coloured walls.

Arterial blood.  My death sentence...

She sat on a plastic chair in the shade of the vine that grew over the roof of the balcony while her lover finished looking around the museum. When he had done so, he came out to join her, and they sat side by side while he smoked a cigarette.

'Better?' he asked her.

'My feet, you mean? Oh yes. A lot better,' she said.

'That's good.' He closed his eyes. The sun cast shadows of gently swaying leaves on his face and on his large ungainly body, sprawled in its too-small chair.  

'Imagine,' he said drowsily. 'Rome. In this heat. What a place to bring a sick man...'

'Hellish,' she agreed.

Everything's fine, she was thinking. I've let myself get spooked about nothing at all. For a while she sat without moving, watching her lover's face as he dozed. I can wait, she told herself. I have to be patient, that's all. If I can just hold on it'll all turn out all right.      

And then he opened his eyes; held her gaze, unsmiling, for what struck her as an inordinately long time. A measuring look, she thought afterwards, in which she was considered and found wanting.

'We ought to go,' he told her, his tone giving nothing away - but it seemed to her he had, in a sense, already been gone a while.

Christina Koning is the award-winning author of eight novels.

Published on December 13, 2016.