What I remember of it now is the river looking back at us the whole time. Like it was appalled.

I had called up this Brazilian guy and asked to look at the room he was letting. It was close to the Duomo so I figured it could give me a real feel for the city. Like the medieval feel everyone was after there but you could never quite touch. He showed me through from the main door which led straight into his bedroom. Three beds had been squeezed side by side into the room right up against each other. I couldn’t imagine how they’d done it. There was just space enough for a tv at the end of the room, which was showing a game. There was another Brazilian guy on the farmost bed, rolling a joint and drinking neat rum. He was just all smiles. They told me they worked in an enoteca the other side of the river, serving fine wine to rich natives. They spent the rest of their time laying around that room in their underwear, drinking neat rum and trying to pick up the language from television.

     “Your room is next to this one.” He said. We had to climb over the other beds to get to it. “It’s not much.”

     “I’ve seen worse. But not at this kind of a price.” The bed managed to touch all four walls at once. There was no walking space. “Where do you keep your things? Like, your clothes?”

     “We use boxes. There are these boxes that slot under the beds. It works out okay. The one thing is that the only bathroom  is past your bedroom.” He kept calling it my bedroom, like I had already been condemned to it all. “So people will have to climb over your bed at night to get there. But you get used to it.”

     “And is there a kitchen?” He looked at me like I had asked after a billiards room. “You people are crazy. For this kind of money you could get a palace five minutes out of the centre.”

     “Yeah but look out this window. You see the Duomo? You see the Ponte Vecchio? I write home telling my family I look out every morning on the Ponte Vecchio. They just go crazy for it.”

I found a bar around the corner from there and tried to forget that I was one week from getting evicted. Those guys were crazy. There was medieval and then there was medieval. I was on my second drink and was trying like hell to ignore the giant television they had on in front of me when I heard someone calling over. 

     “Hey. Over here. Come on over here.” They guy had an Irish accent and was beckoning me over like we were old friends. I wondered if I was going to have to pretend to remember him. I got over and he gripped my hand. “I could tell you were Irish. You can always tell. Some kind of miserable slouch when we have to drink alone. It’s all over us.” He pointed out the book I was reading, The Leopard by De Lampedusa, and produced the same one out of his bag. To him, this was the cosmic seal of approval on our drinking together. There was no longer any alternative. His name was Leo and he was from Dublin. He had been working in a bookies until the day he finally packed it all in to follow his dream and travel Italy. He had done so for 3 weeks and had about run out of money. But it had been worth it. He said he loved poetry and art and fine things, all the fine things you don’t get in bookies. Also mediterranean women. And that this break would have to nourish his soul for the next few years. But he thought it just might. He figured this was his last weekend and was due down in Rome for some reason the next morning. He was pretty excited about this too. I told him about my own situation. We agreed there were two kinds of people in life. The kind everything fell gracefully into their laps right from heaven and the kind like us, who had to fight every morsel off another guy’s plate. We drank some more together. Then he said. “What you’ve got to do to get by is this: Learn how to use the first kind of guy. I’ve been staying rent free over on the hill. Over in this beautiful seventeenth century house. It has an east and west wing.  It has these lavish gardens full of flowers. The guy living there is this crazy old gay guy. He lives alone and sits in his drawing room listening to Mahler all day. All I have to do is be around.”

     “Be around?”

     “Yeah, that’s the beauty of it. For him I represent the potential of something happening between us. It’s all mystique. Like the best things in life, it’s the promise. Between you and me I don’t swing that way at all. I’m not into anything like that. But I don’t have to do anything. Just be part of the illusion. He talks to me sometimes. They get a certain age, they need people to talk to. He introduces me to his friends. I’m like some kind of a novelty.”

     “So how come you’re complaning about running out of money?” 

     “Well he came back late one night this week. I felt right off things had changed. He had some other guy with him. A lot prettier than me. We talked a little in the kitchen. Italian guy, he seemed ok. Had a girlfriend in Pistoia. But he was sliding right into my gig. He was thinking to involve the girl after a while too. No matter what way you look at it, it’s dog eat dog.” That all seemed to me like a stressful way to live. I needed a place to come home and relax. 

     There was a middle aged guy in a sailor hat who’d been sitting nearby. Leo pointed him out to me. He was swaying back and forward for drink and looked very alone. He said one or two things in this guy’s direction. About the footbal, about the waitress. And then he was over at our table. He was Belgian. His family were elsewhere. 

     “Are you guys Irish? What are you doing here? Irish, well I never!”

     “Sure we’re Irish.” Leo said. “What do you think we’re doing here, we’re great artists. We came here to make our names.”

This so impressed the sailor that he went and bought us three straight whiskeys. “Not only are we great artists, we sail too. We sailed here. Do you sail?” He was equally impressed by this, and returned from the bar with 3 more drinks, cocktails this time. Leo was looking at me the whole time like he was giving me a priceless life lesson. This guy in the hat was getting drunker. He told us that he had saved up a lot of money. That he had only arrived that day. He needed to get away from his family for a little while. 

     “I don’t know that this guy is so rich.” I said to Leo. “I think we should get away from here. I can feel the atmosphere about to change.” The atmosphere did change. Leo changed it. He leant in closer to the sailor. 

     “I bet you’d like to have at it with me wouldn’t you?” He said to him. That harmless guy in the hat who’d been buying us drinks. “I bet you would. You’ve been buying us these to limber us up. Get me back on your boat.” The man almost fell off his chair. “You want to keep me in your boathouse. Perpetrate vile, indecent acts.” The man looked around in panic to see if anyone heard. As it turned out, he was just a normal guy, alone in a bar, who was after someone to drink with. Leo wouldn’t be told though. He pressed the point loud enough the three of us were fired right out. 

     We walked a while in the fresh night. The buildings came at us in cold blues, in dead greys. The trees moved through these right into pitch black, rustling in the breeze. We talked about girls. We talked about writing. He wrote. He was writing a book about a girl he was involved with back home. She absolutely hated him but she just couldn’t get enough. He was indifferent. This seemed the perfect substance for a book as far as he was concerned. I told him I’d tried to write a few stories about girls but I always ended up idealising the girl, which wasn’t honest. 

     We found our way to a club. It was all red lights and leopardskin and the doorman was an african midget, but that was all a sham. You paid in and found it was just a regular cocktail bar. It was full of locals. They were sitting around and playing board games. No one in there was anything like drunk, bar us. We took one look around and wondered what the hell we were supposed to do. But we were welcomed with open arms by a group of Italians up a flight of steps. They were all sitting, playing some card game. Most of them were girls and incredible looking girls at that.  

     “Irish!” They shouted. “Finally some crazy Irish! Come up here!” And they made space for us to join in, they even dealt us hands. Leo arrived back upstairs with 2 White russians plus chasers. It dawned on us then no on else was even drinking. He gave me one of what he had taken and we attempted to play. The cards were insane. It was some local game. There were monkeys and lizards and planets on them. I was played out right away. I had no idea. But he was able to bluff his way through a few  hands. 

     “Look at these retards.” Leo thought that talking out of the side of his mouth was the magic trick to prevent anyone else understanding. “Playing some retarded game for kids. For gypsy kids. Two hands from now I’ll up the ante, get them betting. Then we’ll own the fuckers.” The whole place was filled with people like them. They were well turned out, sober and laughing. It didn’t take long for them to cotton on to the condition we were in. Then their affection cooled. Leo had turned up a book people had written in. They had written quotes and lines from songs, pieces from poems and sketches of things. To us, that these people were sitting around sober, playing children’s games and writing quotes from John Lennon, Artaud and Bill Hicks in notepads was the funniest thing of all. He brought down this book to the midget. Leo was shouting at him over the music, all about what kind of establishment this was. That nobody was drinking. The midget looked him up and down a certain way. Looked us both up and down. It was a certain look, like he had met something distasteful for the very first time. That he was cagy on how to react. We kept on getting the girls to bring us White Russians, all the way up those steps. We tipped like crazy but we weren’t getting the right kind of reaction at all.      

     I pulled out a game of connect 4 and we started to play. Leo was only interested in games where there was something to win. First of all we bet the little money we had over, which amounted to change. Finally, we wound up betting that if either of us managed to pull that night, the other one had first option on her. At the same time, to give us our due, we were as likely to pull as one could ever be, struggling to recall how to play connect 4, too inebriated to even sit up worth a damn and having alienated ourselves from the entire pub, roaring obscenities at one another over cocktails. This can only have been helped by my stool slipping from under me right about that point. It sent me all the way back down those stairs, damn that hurt the next day, and the connect 4 game with me, sending the pieces in all directions. Comically, they were still tumbling down long after I had settled, heaped against a chair on the ground. I can’t tell you why that midget waited until that point to throw us out, but it seemed the right time to him. Leo wanted to fight him. He wanted to fight that african midget dressed in a leopardskin hat. This guy just looked at him right through. It was contempt all over. Short as he was, he knew how to handle a drunk and we were outdoors faster than we understood how.     

     “Man. I’m ruined. I’m good and ruined.” Leo collapsed onto the kerb, staring out at the river. It was bright enough out it could’ve been day. This is how I remember it. He slouched and lit up a cigarette. “My hostel closed at eleven. I’m homeless. All my stuff is there. My tickets are there. I haven’t a cent left.” I knew what was coming. “Can I crash on your floor? I’ll be gone early. I’ve got to be in Rome early.”

     “Sure.” I said. “But we still might be able to find a bar open on the way.” 

     We arrived at my door it must’ve been hours later. The walk should only take about twenty minutes but there were so many diversions. We just lost the time that way, wherever drunk time disappears to in the night. Our conversation had come round to how the world owed us something. That way they say the world owes you nothing. We took issue with that. 

We got in the main front door, that thing groaned open loud enough to wake the street and we let it slam after us. Not out of malice, we were just fighting to stay upright, holding on to the walls. I got up to my flat but the key wasn’t fitting in the door. I tried that key five times it must’ve been, but no deal. I said:

     “They’ve gone and changed the locks. The fuckers. This is that landlord. That fucker. I still had a week!” I started thumping on that door then. Really letting go. “Why did you change the locks? I’m right out here. Let me in!” No answer came back. I hammered on this door a while. It was around four or five in the morning. That time of night that seems to bear no relevance to normal life. Leo was looking at me like I had lost my mind. I wondered if I had.

     “Are you sure you live here?” He said. I was pretty certain this was the place. And that they were all inside, laughing or cowering under a table in dread. I really invested a lot of emotion on letting that door have it and swearing. Then we both went back downstairs to make sure it was in fact the right building. 

     We got outside into the fresh air and something came over the both of us. We were looking at each other in abject hatred. I think we looked at each other and saw exactly what the other saw. Probably whatever everyone else had been seeing all night. A moment later we were fighting around the street. Swinging fists drunkenly and grappling each other without any balance at all. I got him down into the gutter and started pummeling away. Then he got me in a headlock grip and squeezed hard. Anyone watching this bizarre dance would’ve been mesmerised by the lack of grace, co-ordination or anything like aim. But it meant a whole lot right then to us. There were more things coming to the surface than we knew. There was blood on the pavement but I couldn’t see from where. He landed me a good one to the cheekbone though. Then I got him in the ribs. We were out of breath pretty quickly. We sat down on the kerb and I think he might’ve been in tears. He had a cigarette. Then we went back inside that main door and decided to sleep it off in the hall, where it was at least warm. 

     By the time I awoke next morning he was gone. I checked my wallet and keys and bag were untouched. It was late enough people had been walking by me for hours in that hall. When I went back upstairs my key worked perfectly. 

 

And it was like they were not even around her, that she was alone in the room.

I’d walked all the way out there to see these pictures I figured I might as well lay out the extra money and get the full worth. I handed over the four pound fifty and the girl handed me the audio guide. I figured worst case I could dip in and out, pick and choose what I listened to, but it was unbearable. He sounded like he was declaiming from the hall of a grand palace and I ought to have been cowering in hushed awe. There was no one to hand it back to inside so I hung the whole thing switched off around my neck and made my own way. 

     Right off the bat I knew I’d come too early. There were too many people. I should’ve known better. You let these things peter out in popularity until the second last week. The last week you get the panicked box-tickers who need to be able to say they’ve seen it. That first weekend you get the art students who need to declaim to the room everything they know about cross-hatching. You get the landed gentry hobbling from frame to frame on sticks, with huge heads, sometimes hats on top of them, their faces an inch from the glass. You get the armchair expert, explaining to his bored wife how they got all the dates wrong. You get the Italian couple who can’t keep their hands off each other in front of every picture. You get the visiting businessmen, talking about motor racing in front of sketches Leonardo scratched down of an infant Christ grappling a cat, the cat in each one desperate to get away. The mind boggled how he did it. That cat was made of maybe four lines but it yearned for escape with every one of them. Still, Hamilton was going to be so much faster come the next race, it was all down to aerodynamics. I could relate to that cat.
     Then there was a girl sat in front of another Leonardo, this one of a woman’s face. She couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve and she was sat there on a tiny chair with a sketch-pad open, drawing out the picture in front of her. Making pretty good work of it at that. Her mother would drop by and see what she was doing now and again, giving her encouragement. Well, people were coming up behind this girl tutting and clucking their tongues. Talking about how she was taking up space in front of the drawing. That people couldn’t get in for a closer look. They had all kinds of sighs and whispers ready for this kid. They stood over her, casting their shadows. But I looked over at her and she was smiling a wide, toothy grin. That kid couldn’t stop smiling. She couldn’t help herself. Maybe she was only twelve but she already knew. 

     Coming out of the exhibit you left by the gift shop, the way they always arrange it. Well, they fell upon those gifts. All the businessmen and enthusiasts and the experts and tourists. They hoovered up the calendars and place-mats and coffee table books of Mantegna and Fra Angelico. They tried on the Leonardo aprons and scarves. Queued right up to pay out any amount, buy up any nonsense to feel closer to what they’d seen. For some kind of tactile relationship with it they could take home and shelve. When the girl was finished copying out this woman’s face she sat herself in front of the infant Christ with the cats. She sat and sharpened her pencil. She was still smiling, and she hummed at little tune to herself as she started to draw.

In the end, none of us were as domesticated as we made out.

     I had finally landed a job teaching but it was all the way up in Padova. They gave me the afternoon class on account of how I had to train it in every day from Florence and then back again in the evening, a four hour round trip. This suited me just fine as I was actually staying with a girl in the next town so could spend most of the day at leisure while they believed I was in trekking in over heroic distances. Then one evening they called me into the office. There was a woman standing there with them, grinning oddly at me. 
    ”We’ve found you a place to live.” The boss said. There was this look of triumph on her face like she had solved all my problems. “This is Simona. She lives about ten minutes from here.” She sat back in her chair then and awaited my waves of gratitude. Everything had already been arranged and I was the last one to know. Simona didn’t speak a word of English. I thought: fine, it’ll improve my Italian. But she was the kind of person who corrected every mistake you made, so I soon shut up and pretended to listen. The next thing was I found myself in her car, driving to her home in the middle of the countryside. It was the dead of night and there were no lights for miles. This particular ten minutes took about half an hour at breakneck speed through winding roads barely the width of the car. I didn’t see one other person the entire time and we stayed silent, listening to her CDs of Italian singers.
     I soon understood that I was expected to stay there that night and work the next day. She had laid out a toothbrush and towel to make me feel right at home. The one thing she did trouble herself to explain in English was how she was sub-letting the room illegally and if the landlady should happen to drop by that I was just a visiting friend. Italy. 

     She was about forty five and ran her own business. She was single and socialised almost every night, which gave me the house to myself a lot of the time. She wasn’t unattractive but she dressed in a whole lot of leopardskin and leather and explained how men were terrified of a strong, self-sufficient woman. That this was the reason she had never married. Oh, she had men, but they never lasted. She had two cats. All the affection she needed she got from these cats. They had been abandoned, maybe abused, and she had rescued them from a vet’s. These two cats were incredibly nervous and treated her with total indifference until they decided it was time to be fed. But they were her solace and she talked about them constantly. She would point out an expression on one of their faces and say:
     “If cats could speak eh? If they could only speak. Look at that. It’s as if she’s saying I’ve worked hard all day, I deserve to bed down finally and rest.” The cat looked back across the room at us with disdain. I didn’t mind the cats too much until they started defecating in the bathtub and sink. You would go in and find their work left in some corner under the tap and the cat would be sitting there in the room, eyeing you down in defiance, waiting on you to start some trouble. When I mentioned this I was told I made them nervous and I should try harder to bond with them.

     Whenever I was cooking she dropped by the kitchen to tell me everything I was doing was wrong. All I was doing was making pasta with some simple tomato sauce but there must have been some ancient and mystical art to it that only Italians could fathom. She stood there telling me of all the wonderful recipes she knew how to cook, recipes from all over the globe, going down to ingredients and measurements like I was recording it all for later use. Any time I came into the kitchen she was spooning out sauce from a jar onto some microwaved rice. Sometimes her friends would come over and tell me about their own recipes. Lamb from Morocco, sauces from Taiwan. They would sit there, eating this microwave rice and tell me what wonderful cooks they all were.  

     Then one day the landlady came by. I was sitting outdoors, spraying myself with water to try and stay alive in the heat when a car pulled up. A wealthy looking woman got out, walked over to me and introduced herself as Louise. As it happened she was Irish and was suffering the heat as badly as me. We chatted a while about this, about how crazy the Italians all were and about some pubs back home in Dublin that we missed. Finally she said: 
     “You must be Simona’s new tenant.”
     “Yep. This is my room behind me, the one filled with flies and exotic insects.” 
     “Yeah I figured she was sub-letting. Don’t let on that I know. I don’t want to rock the boat. I’m already sub-letting the house to her against the wishes of the owner.”
     Every day going to work on my bike I ran the gauntlet of dogs that every single neighbour allowed wander around their property unmarshalled to keep out trespassers. I got fit as hell pedalling like a madman to get away from those deranged animals, many of whom kept up the chase for miles. They all awaited my return home in the evenings too. They had all day to psyche themselves up for it and each time I’d stop just before the final hill and wonder: is this the day they get me?
    
One day I arrived home to find one of the cats dead in the hall. It was emaciated and stretched out and it’s eyes were wide open, staring straight ahead. It had dried out in the heat. The other cat was sat in the corner, looking at me in bewilderment. I had no idea what to do with this woman’s dead cat. I knew I couldn’t call or text her. My lamentable Italian couldn’t handle the delicacy of the situation. All I knew to text was: Your cat is dead. But it felt wrong to just leave it there stretched out, also it had to be unsanitary. I took the cat and put it in a plastic bag. I brought the bag out to the front yard and would explain everything when she got home. But I had thought ahead. I left a note saying: Don’t look in this bag. I waited and waited but she didn’t show up. She had gone out to some club to party. I knew what this cat meant to her so I tried every trick I knew to stay awake. I drank coffee. I Watched cheap TV. But it got later and later and I had my olympic bicycle sprint awaiting me the next morning. Eventually I couldn’t take it any longer, I fell asleep. 
     I was awakened by the sound of sobbing from the front porch in the middle of the night. I moved out soon after that. 

That time of day when the shadows get longer.

I took a walk in the park. The sun was out so I thought it might do me some good. The park was full of all kinds of people. A little too many for me but I didn’t mind it too much. I passed an elderly couple discussing their sandwiches. I passed a man walking about seven dogs. I passed a group of young men playing football in that way it mattered a hell of a lot to them who was going to win. They moved easily from English to some other language and all they seemed to do was swear and laugh. I passed a group of young mothers on the other side of the path, sat out on a rug with a picnic, their faces pointed at the sun and their children playing in front of them. There were a lot of kids out with their parents that day. It almost put me to shame to be so hungover. One young woman and her daughter were having some kind of a race. They ran right past me. They would run together down the main pathway and then one of them would stop. The other one would have to stop dead too and wait for the first one to go again. Maybe there was more to it but it seemed like a complicated game to me. Every time they stopped, the child would look up at her mother’s face in absolute delight. Her eyes ablaze with it. Like there was nowhere else on the planet she would’ve been right then.  
     A little further along a father was playing football with his son. The guy had no real idea how to play, he kept mis-kicking the thing far off into the distance, and the kid would have to race after it, but he was teaching the kid everything he knew. The son was taking this advice too. Taking it like it was coming from the greatest player in the world.
     I followed the pathway down to where the swans were strutting around by the pond. Those swans were digging into their wings and bodies with their heads, drying themselves right off, just as aggressive as ever. Those animals really looked upset with life to me. Maybe it was the heat. A family was walking by admiring them and the father hunched down to ask his young son how to spell the word swan.
     “B.” The kid said.
     “Are you sure?”
     “U…” 
     “Um hmm?”
     “S?”
     “Yes?”
     “W?”
     “Yes?”
     “A…N!” At this success, the father swept the child up in his arms, showered him with praise in some language I couldn’t identify and clasped him close as he could. That kid had an expression about as happy as you could imagine someone looking.
     On the way back round I noticed there was a police car parked near where I had come in. I got closer and saw a whole lot of police, many of them restraining a couple of men. I never liked to be near police because I always figure I’ve got a guilty look about me. That they’re just going to turn and pounce. Maybe try and make me confess to something. They were restraining the same men I had passed playing football earlier, who stood spitting abuse at one another around the shoulders and the arms of the cops. The ball was resting innocently against a tree.
     “You threatened to stab me.” One of them said.
     “The fuck I did. You racially insulted me. You insulted my family, my wife.”
     “You only turned up here for a fight. It’s clear. Clear to everyone. You barely even played. You just rolled up here and got going with your threats. You heard him. You heard what he said.” Two officers stepped in about then and buckled them both to the ground, that way they have of doing. I walked on by. When I looked back again there was a police van, two bicycle police and another car all pulled up and most of the footballers were cuffed and on their knees.
     The next time I took a walk in the park the police had a check point set up at the gate to search people for weapons. 

 

The Web Designer’s Tale

     I made two train journeys last week. One was to Canterbury and the other one was to get home. On the first journey a woman got on with a child that wouldn’t stop crying. She sat at the other end of the carriage while this kid invented 280 different ways of saying the word mama, all of them roared through floods of tears. I wondered what had been done to the child to get him into that kind of a state. 
     Me, I was content enough to read my book and look out from time to time at the passing scenery. I was happy with this. It was enough for me. I don’t know what the story was with this woman but this wasn’t enough for her. She could see me through the gap in the chairs. I caught her making eye contact. Then a few moments later I caught her doing it again. She took one hard look at me and relocated herself and the child to the seat directly in front of me. She positioned herself so she could look straight at me in defiance through the gap in the seats. It’s probably not an easy lot, hauling a kid around all the time, having it cry, but I didn’t know what it had to do with me. It was like I represented to her every disapproving passenger or passer-by who ever rolled their eyes at a kid making noise. Why this was I can’t say. Maybe I have a disapproving face. Eventually I looked back at her, in defiance too. I had nothing against her or the kid but I was feeling pretty defiant right then. This went on a little. We exchanged these glances. Then her stop came up and she got off.

     On the train home a girl got on with her boyfriend who had had a little too much to drink. They discussed this situation a while. She was in that frame of mind that everything this guy did was suddenly going to be wrong just because he was a little drunk. I didn’t like the guy one bit. I took one look at him and new him right through. He had a mean look about him. And those guys make for the worst drunks. But in her eyes he was suddenly tying his shoelaces the wrong way and his posture had always been faulty. There was a stain on his jacket he’d never get out. Things like this. At a certain point all of these things got to the girl so bad she stood up and walked down the centre of the carriage and sat down next to me. I looked up from my book right at her. 
     “Do you mind if I sit here next to you a little while?” She said. “Sometimes you need a break, you know?” The train rattled on. Then she said: “Kent is a truly lovely place when the weather is out and pretty. It’s so easy to forget that.” 
     All the time this guy was back there in his seat looking at me. He had this look like I had engineered his whole life to that point only so I could sleep with his girlfriend. His head was right out in the aisle aimed straight at me. The countryside slipped by in darkness all around us. I agreed with her it had been a fine day. “Oh, you’re Irish. Is this your first time in Canterbury?” She was fixing her hair up with some kind of a clip in her mouth and looking me right in the eye.
     “Listen,” I said, “I think your boyfriend there is about ready to come down here and put me through this window.”
     “You think he’d be up to that, the condition he’s in?”
     “I don’t think that’s really the point.” I said. She got up to go back but turned to me a final time first.   
     The look she gave me then was the same defiance as the woman with the child.

Yeah, this is me. 

Yeah, this is me.