This is a new essay about the first time I went to Italy, in the summer of 1999. You can read the complete text on my patreon page - www.patreon.com/Paulmagrs
‘You have to watch out for the hornets here. Have you come across them yet? Oh, they’re malevolent. A full three inches long and they refuse to die. I’ll show you where we keep the shots in case you get stung. You have to inject yourself immediately with adrenalin. Which sounds rather pleasant, but actually you think the top of your head’s blowing off and it fills you with the most crushing anxiety. But then, so do most things, don’t they?’
We sat up late with Rupert telling us everything he knew about Boccaccio and Petrarch, and filling us in on the last twenty years of his and Lorna living in this apartment. They’re in a farmhouse beside the monastery and we were sitting on their veranda in the dark.
Insects went buzzing past, avoiding the clouds of lemon incense. At one point the lamp on the table broke of its own accord with a loud ‘ping!’ Lorna reached out and picked up a piece of hot, broken glass and burnt her hand. She cursed: ‘Why do I always do stupid things to myself?’ She was half laughing, half angry. Her fingers are bright red already. Very small, delicate fingers, but it’s as if they’re turning colour with the cold, even though this place is warm as hell.
We arrived here at their place at just about the same time as they were printing out an email from the hospital laboratory at home, telling them she had the same germ on her lungs as before.
It was lunchtime. We were in a kind of daze from the heat, pulling up in a taxi and dragging our bags on wheels up the gravel path. They gave us red wine straight away and we slept for part of the afternoon.
Our bedroom looks out on real lemon trees.
There are photos in the corridor that leads to our room. Lorna and Rupert on their terrace in the late Seventies and early Eighties. They look so young and they’re laughing so much. Lorna’s drinking vodka. The glass is so big, tipping over her face as though it could swallow her up. It was when they were both in good health and they could run around anywhere in this city. Now they’re stuck in the house mostly, with the air conditioning cranked right up so that she can breathe. Their living room is on the ground floor: it’s kept dim and chilly with the shutters drawn and this huge machine rolling out the cool air for her. She sits there in the night to read when she can’t sleep.
They sit together, telling stories and she cackles loudly and catches her breath. She yells at him to shut up when he goes rabbiting on too much. ‘You’re taking away my concentration!’ She’s so small, but she has a huge presence and a loud voice. Her hair’s like silver spun sugar, combed out and held back with a slide. Rupert is huge beside her, bumbling, red faced, with his tummy poking out of his shirt. He beams at the prospect of showing off and good company.
He was telling me about their long, late night phone calls with Angela Carter, all about nothing. ‘I can see her sitting where you’re sitting now.’ He’s writing a book about the beginnings of all cultures. He says the root of all world cultures can probably be traced back to a troupe of Turkish dancing girls. His conversation goes all over the place and then he’s back to Angela Carter, and how ‘her wit never got into her books. Rather like me, she was a subversive…’
Lorna rolls her eyes as he goes on about how Latin and Greek should be taught in all schools, and how what separates the Middle Ages from the Renaissance was the Plague. ‘It’s all about regeneration,’ he says.
I start telling them about something I read, about the werewolf myth stemming from Medieval folk in Europe going crazy when they ate bread tainted with a particular kind of mould…
‘I don’t know anything about that,’ he burbled. ‘I’ve got absolutely no interest in that.’ And then he was off again, about the churches we ought to be visiting, and more stuff about the source of all culture (there’s an island near Venice with only eleven people on it and a great many artichokes, and that’s the source of all civilization, too.)
I think Lorna’s more like me, preferring cultural stuff that comes from times closer to ours: things more recent and perhaps more ephemeral.
They both talk a lot and thoroughly enjoy themselves. Sometimes they pause and listen to something one of us has to say: Rupert red with impatience, and Lorna beaming at us both.
The following morning she feels much better and, as we head down to breakfast, we can hear her voice booming through the chilly stone house. She’s at the kitchen table with a huge pile of marked-up manuscripts, newsprint, novels and faxes.